Mother and son enjoying conversation

Using our imagination and our empathy can be hard, but the same things that make us feel better after a long day are the same things that can help a child feel better. 

I want you to imagine you’re having one of those days where you’re really crushing your to-do list. It’s busy and hectic, and you even skipped your lunch break to rush a few projects through. You’ve had a million unexpected phone calls but you still navigated through. You’re giving it everything you’ve got to make it through this day.

Toward the end of the day, your boss (or spouse, or PTA president, or your mother, depending on your situation) pokes their head in. “Hey, did you get that one thing done that I asked you to do?” they ask.

Your stomach drops. “No, I didn’t,” you admit. That’s the one thing you forgot to do in the midst of this busy day.

That makes your boss very upset. “How could you not get it done?” they yell. “This is the only thing I really needed you to do, and I can’t believe you didn’t do it!”

You leave work feeling very discouraged. When you get home, you relate this story to your spouse. Now, depending your spouse, one of a few things could happen:

They might barely look up from their computer or phone, still typing or scrolling. They might say, “Uh huh, honey. That’s too bad,” but without really paying attention.

They might say, “Well … why didn’t you just do it like your boss asked?” or “I’m really surprised that you’re upset. Your boss was right, you know. You didn’t do it.”

Or their response might be, “I know just how to fix this. Here’s what you’re going to do. I’m going to buy you a planner, and I’ll figure out how you can manage your time better, and also I’m really shocked that you haven’t apologized yet. Are you actually thinking about how this will impact your career? You need to buy a box of donuts and take it in tomorrow to apologize ... ”

Are any of these responses what you were hoping for when you told this story to your spouse? If you’re like most people, probably not, or at least not as the very first response. What do most of us want when we have a hard day like this? We want someone to care for us and our needs. It might look something like this:

Physical needs: Offer to draw you a hot bath, take over making dinner or scoop you a bowl of ice cream.

Feeling safe: Validate your emotions. Let you cry it out a little. Tell you they understand.

Connection needs: Briefly share a time when something similar happened to them and how hurtful it was. Help you take your mind off your hard day by watching a movie with you or making you laugh.

Support your competence and confidence: Remind you of times when you’ve overcome challenges in the past. Ask how they can help you make a plan (note: this is very different from making a plan for you, and usually should be done only after they’ve supported your other needs).

Now, here’s the tricky part: We all know which version of this feels better to us. But I’d like you to take a step back and think of your own kids for a moment, or the kids in your life. How often does a child come stomping through the front doors and yell, “I can’t believe I made a D on this paper! That teacher just hates me!” and our first response is something like:

“Well, you know, I know you haven’t really been studying … ”

You do the phone-scrolling thing, half paying attention to the story.

Or perhaps you have a fix-it response, saying something like, “I can’t believe this happened! I’m going there first thing tomorrow to have a discussion with that teacher!” or “If you’d only listen to my plan of how to study, this wouldn’t happen to you.”

Using our imagination and our empathy can be hard, but the same things that make us feel better after a long day are the same things that can help a child feel better. You can care for their physical needs and their needs to feel safe, connected, and confident.

Think back again to your usual reaction after a long hard day. Imagine if your spouse did those things that cared for your needs and how that would help you thrive. Our kids may need a little more support and teaching than our spouses, but the same things that make it possible for us to thrive are the same ones that will help our kids.