by Natalie Christensen
Yesterday I took the girls to tumbling class. It was a drop-in sort of thing that had been going on for several weeks but this was our first time to attend. We were excited and had hardly entered when class began. My girls’ eyes were as big as golf balls, their heads swiveled to and fro trying to make sense of the wild chaos surrounding them. There were lines of kids cartwheeling, lines of kids rolling, lines swirling this way and that.
They had no idea what to do. No idea whatsoever.
I grinned maniacally from the sidelines because they went for it anyway! They sprinted and jumped and hit the ground running, simply copying any kid who happened to be near them. Then, when it was time to organize a bit and cartwheel down the length of the mat, one by one, little Echo, seven years-old and never having completed a cartwheel in her entire life, stepped to the line, twenty kids waiting behind her.
Eventually, dismayed, Echo sought me out, wanting to sit with me rather than finish the class. We watched her sister and snuggled, and though I was dying to get to the bottom of her emotional state and her choice to slip out of class, I kept my questions to myself, instead squeezing her and kissing her every minute or so.
When we returned home, big sister triumphant, little sister cloudy-faced, things got ugly. Simple unrelated inquiries brought a flashing rage from Echo. Loving solicitations met with sinister silent treatments.
Of course, as the adoring, innocent mom I was pissed. What did I do? How did I become the enemy? Bullshit, that’s what this was, bullshit. Yet, I waited. Thirty-minutes later she sidled up and said: “Mom? Know what I was feeling in that tumbling class?… Embarrassed. Embarrassed and nervous.”
Eight years ago, pregnant with that non-cartwheeler, I quit my job and with my husband and dear friend, created a business built around the single, isolated hope that we could help kids do exactly what little Echo had just done: Identify and express feelings.
It seems like a small thing, but in my more star-gazing, loquacious states it feels huge. Tell me how you feel, dear child, and the world will open up at your feet. Tell me how you feel, sweet dear, and I, your mother, will be catapulted into the best version of myself—my shiniest, most patient and adoring self. Tell me how you feel, wounded human, and you will be free. You will receive recognition and understanding. You will receive empathy and touch.
Scientifically speaking, you notice how you feel and share it with someone you trust, then soar away, on to better states of emotion, on to greater brain-power, on to thriving, robust life-success.
That’s how I think of it now, almost a decade and tons of research later. Then, round-bellied and hormonal, I thought of it as an art project. My job was to draw kids in varying emotional states, illustrations we would later put together for a matching game and poster. I studied eyebrow placement, the distance between eyes, how inching one eyeball higher than the other changes the whole mood. I selected color and adjusted composition. I was utterly content with creation being the entire thrust of this endeavor.
Then we began to use the tools and watched tantrums turn into connective snuggle-fests. We began to read and study brain science and emotional development. We began to share our tools and heard stories from all over the world, of children being heard and feeling better. My eyebrow placement on a little drawing was helping kids to relate, giving them something to point to, offering them a way to be seen and understood.
Fast forward to our living room. Still, after years of helping others through classes, presentations, consults and phone calls, I am most thankful for how this work affects my family. Echo was suffering. She was starting fights with her sister, shunning me and ignoring my attempts to help, she was withdrawn and in emotional pain. Without access to her feelings, I had no access to my understanding. Instead of seeing a little girl in distress, I saw a little asshole tyrant. I had no empathy at my disposal, no ideas for how to shift the interaction. Sure, logically I understood that not being able to do a cartwheel in front of an entire gaggle of children that seemed old pros at the sport was upsetting. But sadly logic plays no part in our processing when we are triggered and steam is pouring out of our ears.
Thankfully, Echo has seven-years of emotional processing under her belt and given a little time she summed up the whole of her ordeal with two words: embarrassed and nervous. With those words I was broken open. Gone went my hostility. Gone went my defensiveness. Gone went my outrage.
Embarrassment—that stuff feels bad. Real bad.
I gave her empathy. I sunk to my knees and pet her tiny foot. I repeated her words. I said I understood that those feelings are very uncomfortable. We sat there, faces long, for a few minutes. Then she got up. Like a busy worker bee she took every single cushion off the couch and arranged them just so. She whipped out yoga mats and aligned them with the cushions. Then she began:
-right foot planted
Five hours later the girl had a cartwheel.
She was off and soaring.
“Parenting with Empathy.”
Natalie Christensen is a writer, illustrator, and mother living in Missoula, Montana. She is co-creator of Feeleez, a line of tools that support the emotional development of children. She offers life + parenting coaching and on most days can be found on the banks of the Clark Fork river with her family and her yellow dog.