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How Modeling Empathy to My Toddler Helps Me Navigate Chronic Pain

Living Well

February 14, 2022

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Anna Artemenko/Stocksy United

Anna Artemenko/Stocksy United

by Shelly Jay Shore

•••••

Medically Reviewed by:

Tiffany Taft, PsyD

•••••

by Shelly Jay Shore

•••••

Medically Reviewed by:

Tiffany Taft, PsyD

•••••

Acknowledging the emotions that my pain triggers helps me take better care of my child — and myself.

It’s 8 p.m. — an hour after bedtime is supposed to be over — and my toddler is still screaming.

Logically, I know this is a common occurrence at this developmental stage. Being 2 is all about pushing boundaries, looking for moments of control, and finding every possible way to express newfound opinions. My kid is nothing if not a textbook 2-year-old Capricorn. As my mother-in-law would say, “He read the book.”

Emotionally, it’s another story. It’s hard for any parent to listen to their child melt down, especially when the cause is obvious (they’re tired!) but they show absolute refusal to accept the solution (sleep!).

For parents with chronic health conditions, such moments can be worsened by any number of factors, like pain, sensory overload, and the energy drain on already limited resources when a half-hour routine turns into a 2-hour fight. 

“Hey, kiddo,” I offer, “I think you’re feeling really tired, and that’s why everything feels too big right now. Do you want to sit with me and take a few breaths, and then we’ll try to get ready for bed?”

He does not.

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Just breathe

“OK,” I say, as evenly as I can manage over the escalating wailing. “I’m going to sit here with you and not touch you. I’m sorry you’re feeling so much. I’m a little frustrated and tired, too. It’s OK to feel like that. My back hurts sitting like this, so I’m going to move over here, and I’m going to take some breaths, because it makes me feel better.”

I rest my spine against the nearest wall, and take a few deep breaths. My toddler is more interested in kicking the floor, but he does watch me, even in the dim light, and that attention is enough to let me know he’s considering what I’m doing.

We know that kids learn by watching others. This is true for everything from skill development — picking up on how to brush their teeth or wash a dish — to social and emotional learning.

Children pick up on the way adults in their lives respond to situations, and that includes noticing how a caregiver responds to them when they need something. As they grow, they replicate that behavior.

My toddler is more interested in kicking the floor, but he does watch me… and that attention is enough to let me know he’s considering what I’m doing.

Just as our children see and emulate the ways that we care for them, they also pick up the ways that we care for ourselves.

Self-compassion and self-care come up as buzzwords these days in chronic condition communities, sometimes to very valid criticism — you can’t self-care your way out of serious clinical symptoms — but that doesn’t diminish the importance of modeling self-compassion, especially for anyone living with chronic pain.

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Practicing self-compassion

Self-compassion as a practice is somewhat related to mindfulness, but it takes it a step further.

Dr. Kristen Neff, an associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, has built a career on studying self-compassion for the past 20 years.

“What self-compassion does is it adds two components to mindfulness,” Neff explained on an episode of her podcast “The Healing Pain.” “First are warmth and kindness. In other words, you could acknowledge you’re in pain, and you don’t want to fight it. But at the same time, it’s like, ‘It hurts. I’m so sorry I’m in pain.’”

Self-compassion is hard, particularly on days when pain is so severe that it keeps us from functioning — especially when it sometimes feels like society looks for ways to blame people for their own health conditions.

In my own experience, though, self-compassion has made a difference in my ability to sit with what I’m feeling, physically and emotionally, with more tolerance and less shame.

In some ways, ironically, there’s a self-parenting aspect to the practice: I try to respond to myself the way I would want to respond to my son. Would I blame him for being upset, or frustrated, or not knowing how to express what he’s feeling when it seems too big and confusing? No. So I shouldn’t blame myself, either.

According to Neff, this is exactly the way many of us begin to practice self-compassion.

“That tenderness and that care — like if you have a friend or a child who’s in pain — you just naturally say, ‘I’m so sorry.’ There’s a warmth and tenderness and concern that goes toward the person in pain,” she said. “We can actually do that with ourselves. It also helps us hold the pain. We’re able to have that warmth and tenderness toward ourselves.”

Self-compassion has made a difference in my ability to sit with what I’m feeling, with more tolerance and less shame.

When I sit next to my furious toddler in his dim bedroom — after having my offers for snuggles enthusiastically rejected — and let him know that I’m a little sad and frustrated, too, my goal isn’t just to fill the room with something other than wailing. It’s to show him that I’m recognizing how I’m feeling, and doing something to respond to that feeling.

I’m modeling not just the way I respond to him when he’s hurt or upset, but also how I respond to myself: gently and without blame.

For kids, self-compassion can’t really be taught as a skill, like tying your shoes; it needs to be modeled. Kids are perceptive. They notice if we tell them to treat themselves lovingly, while responding to our own emotions with frustration, shame, or harsh words. If we want our kids to treat themselves with compassion, we need to show that self-compassion in action.

For caregivers with chronic pain, this is especially important. It’s so easy to slip into patterns of self-blame and distress, especially when our kids’ behaviors trigger physical flares or symptoms of mental health conditions.

For me, framing self-compassion as something to be practiced — something I’m continuously learning, not a concrete skill I have —makes a difference. If I can’t do it every day, or in every situation, that’s not an indication of failure. It’s just like how, sometimes, my son can handle a transition to bedtime easily, while other days, it overwhelms him.

Growing together

We’re learning together, and practicing compassion toward myself on days when his frustration triggers mine makes a difference, both in the moment and in the long term.

After a few minutes of my deep breathing against the wall, my son’s wails start to transition into something quieter. Slowly, he starts to match his breathing to mine.

“Hey,” I say. “Do you want to have a hug?”

He considers it, and finally, after a long, calm moment, he nods.

Medically reviewed on February 14, 2022

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About the author

Shelly Jay Shore

Shelly Jay Shore (she/they) is a writer and digital strategist in New York/Colonized Lenapehoking. Her creative fiction and nonfiction celebrates diverse characters and perspectives, and her activism centers on expanding civic engagement and social justice. In her limited free time, Shelly reads a truly alarming number of books, experiments with home bartending, wrestles with her dogs, and attempts to raise a functioning human being. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.

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