Rising above my own feelings; thoughts on empathy…


Been reading articles from Dr. Markham and Positive Parents since my little lady went to bed. The title of this blog was inspired by one of Dr. Markham’s articles.

We generally practice the “ignore” technique for tantrums around our house. Example: She starts to tantrum, I stop what I am doing and stand still but I do not look at her or offer any encouragement or discouragement. Kind of letting her ride out the tantrum on her own.  If she bites (our current biggest no-no) during a tantrum, I calmly walk into the other room and close the door a little so she can’t get to me and bite again but not so that I can’t be near enough to her so she feels abandoned. After she has calmed herself down, I pick her up and we sit and talk about what happened. Why she got upset, the emotion she was feeling and why her behavior was wrong are usually how the discussion goes. She might not grasp all of it yet, but I want her to know that talking about her feelings gets more results than screaming and throwing herself to the ground or biting.

I do this because during animal training if an animal does not perform the desired behavior you ignore and move on (but also don’t reward), often back stepping to a simpler behavior that the animal already fully comprehends and enjoys doing. When the animal complies, you bridge (or reward outright) and try the more complex behavior again that you wish them to accomplish. If they still will not comply with the command, leave the session on a high note and try again later. Easy-peasy.

As I have learned SO many times since becoming a parent, my tried and true animal training techniques don’t usually work on human children, less and less so as my daughter gets older.

Hubby and I discussed spanking. We always said that when we had kids we would spank. It was so easy to talk about. When it comes right down to it however, I lose my nerve. I did spank her twice. Before anyone calls CPS on our family or starts comment trolling, it was a one small pop on her diapered bottom in each instance. Relax.

Hubby and I had talked about it, and although I was reluctant, I decided to try it, because the ignore method isn’t really helping anymore. If anything, it is making her worse! So I tried the spank, and I felt so horrible after. Maybe I am just to soft, but I don’t really feel it taught her anything (other than how to hit, as now I have caught her spanking her books and doll and saying “No” and “Bad” a few times now.) and it made me feel like a horrible person at the same time. Here is the one person I love and cherish above all others in the world, and I struck her bottom and the look on her face just tore me to pieces.  The second time wasn’t as awful for either of us as the first, which is scary in itself. That means it probably gets easier for me to strike her each time we would do it, AND she would become conditioned to it and ignore it as each instance occurs. No win situation.

So I have been searching for a new method. I certainly can’t let her run wild (she is stubborn enough and wild enough already!) and I don’t have the heart for corporal punishment. I find myself becoming what Positive Parenting calls a “permissive parent.”  I know, I know, it sounds like a bunch of hooey huh? Some drop-out psychoanalyst trying to dupe people out of their cash. Well, I kept reading, and reading. All of it is on the site for free (although I will note she does have a book for sale for like $5, and she has a donate tab, but she isn’t pushy so that’s reasonable. Everybody has to eat right?) Not trying to be a commercial here, that’s really not how I roll. But a lot of the things she was saying on her site really made sense to me.

In my career, it is my JOB to be empathetic. I have to infer most of the information about the animals in my care, and I do that thru observation, records and empathy. My reaction to my animals is based off of keen and trained observation of them. Are they in a bad mood today? Are they feeling compliant and ready to train? Do they feel like going out today? Are they sick or injured? In some cases, it can mean not only my job if I fail to correctly asses their mood, but also can mean serious bodily harm and for some unfortunate keepers (and sometimes the public) it can mean death. As a result I have strongly fine tuned my ability to empathize with others, people too; although admittedly people are harder because people usually hide their emotions and thoughts in ways animals never do; but that’s the subject for a whole other blog. It is a good skill in my professional life, as well as my life as a mother.

So WHY is it so hard for me to empathize with my daughter in the middle of a tantrum?  The answer is easy I suppose. I care so much and I try so hard for her, when she gets in her moods and nothing makes her happy or is good enough it frustrates the he*l out of me! Standing still and ignoring her also gives me a moment to take stock and asses my feelings so I don’t just rage out and scream at her. It is hard to empathize with someone when our own feelings are clouding our vision. I have learned this lesson time and time again, and probably will continue to have to learn it over and over before I get it. Its a hard lesson to stick.

This Positive Parenting thing might just work. It is worth giving a try. When I ignore, my daughter’s frustration level just escalates. I can visibly see her get more upset. She usually resorts to biting my shirt (I don’t react as strongly to that as I do her biting my skin) and it takes her ages to calm down enough so we can sit and have our “post-tantrum talk.” This method seems to lend itself more to how I would like to parent. My first instinct has always been to hold her when she is upset, but people tell me I am coddling her. Well, I guess we will find out!

My biggest concern; which I did pose to the author of the site, awaiting an answer (or perhaps it is in another article on her site that I just haven’t seen yet), is that I would think that sitting and snuggling with her while she tantrums would just teach her that throwing a tantrum gets her attention, thus giving her reason to tantrum more? I think this requires yet more research and probably a lot of real-life situational practice. I am going to make a go of it and see if it helps. I am going to strive to be more empathetic and try to see her perspective. She is just a toddler, and she doesn’t understand her emotions yet, let alone how to control them. He*l, I know LOTS of adults who can’t even control their own emotions (sometimes I am one of them!)

Wish us luck!

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  1. August 9th, 2012
  2. May 21st, 2013

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