When Empathy Goes Out The Window

When Empathy Goes Out The Window

Until recently I thought I was really good at empathy. This was something I didn’t need to work at – heck, it came naturally! If someone was feeling pain, I was right there with them. My challenge as a young woman working in social work was to turn down my empathy so that I could be of use and make it through the day.

What I’ve become aware of through understanding and playing around with Brené Browns explanation of empathy, is that for me to be genuinely empathetic, particularly with those I’m closest to, I need to be conscious and act against my “natural” reaction to their pain.

Here’s a story from last week to illustrate. My daughter – singing bird – has been through a rough patch this fall which began with her breaking her arm. She got a cast and after two days of the weepies, was up and running. Then a week or so later I got a call from her school informing me she’d taken a bad fall, her body colliding with the concrete playground. Singing bird doesn’t cry easily so when I arrived at the school office to find her in a wimpering ball, I knew it was bad.

What I’d advise a client or friend to do in this situation:  When you get your daughter home, ice pack in hand, find a quiet comfortable place where you can simply be together. Create a nest of coziness. Give your child a chance to feel all that she’s been holding in at school, her fear, her pain, her embarrassment…. Without expectations simply spend time with her. By giving her a chance to experience her emotions you’re allowing an important opportunity for her to heal, emotionally and physically. What you’ll be providing is a gift because so often we aren’t permitted our feelings. We’re told, through words and/or actions, to act appropriately. Translation:  don’t express feelings of sadness, anger, disappointment, jealousy and even pain.

What I did: When we got home, I helped her out of the car and made her comfy on the couch. I got an ice pack for her head, band aides for her hip, some pain medication and a tasty melt in your mouth homeopathic remedy too. To make sure all of her senses were “soothed”, I found a television show for her to watch to further distract her from her feelings – I mean to make her feel better – heck isn’t it the same thing?

Even as I write this I’m cringing. I missed a rich opportunity to connect with her and more importantly to simply be with her – keep her company through a hard and healing time. Empathy. I avoided it. No doubt, it felt instinctual to go into fix it mode – to make her all better – to put the pain behind her.

Later that afternoon it dawned on me what I’d done. I called my sister and described the incident and how I’d missed a real opportunity for empathy. She thanked me because she was taking her daughter to the dentist for multiple tooth extraction the next day and was encouraged by the reminder.

We don’t have to fix pain or make it go away and it’s actually better if we can find a place within ourselves that allows us to be present.

(If you haven’t seen it, this short animated piece, narrated by Brené Brown is worth watching!)

What does it take for YOU to BE WITH your child when they’re in discomfort – physical or emotional? Please share in the comment section below!

For me, I know that sharing my story with you will help raise my awareness so that when my next empathy opportunity comes, and I know it will, I’ll BE there.  Thanks for reading!

If you haven’t already done so, join me on this journey!

Wanna talk? Schedule a time here.

Why Susan Sarandon has a Hold on Me

Why Susan Sarandon has a Hold on Me

Years ago I read an interview with Susan Sarandon.

When asked if she missed the thrill of working in between jobs she said no, there’s nothing I’d rather do than spend time with my childrenThey’re the most fascinating people I know.

Can’t you just hear her saying that?

Although I read them years ago, her words (how I remember them) continue to cycle through my memory and with them comes more than a pang of inadequacy. She’s clearly an attentive, interested mother who’s produced spellbinding people to boot!

Don’t get me wrong. I couldn’t love my children more than I do – they are kind, cool, quirky, creative… downright good people.

Nonetheless, the image of the hip, engaged Sarandon mama has stuck with me. I don’t measure up. I’m not good enough.

When my second son was six, a friend he affectionately called his “God Brother,” invited him to camp on the beach in Hawaii for 10 days!

Sure we hesitated, it seemed dicey to have our child a stones’ throw from the ocean and so far away from us. But we trusted the parents, he was eager to go and we wanted to encourage his openness.

I was thrilled.

When we spoke with him on the phone he enthusiastically cheered that he was having the time of his life (his exact words).

Am I a good mother? How is it that I enjoy my little one being so far away – for so long?

Susan Sarandon has become a symbol for me – beyond Bull Durham and Thelma and Louise – she’s the uber interested mama who prefers the company of her children over her friends and her cool tribe of actor homies.

My fantasy continues… when Susan goes out to dinner with her kids, there’s no scuffle over devices because each family member is wrapped in titillating conversation or simply basking in each other’s company. Her kids prefer the company of their mom to friends (okay, Lisa now you’re just being silly).

Who’s your version of Susan Sarandon?

Is there someone you measure yourself against? Someone you use to judge yourself?

Maybe it’s your neighbor Jane whose kids always say thank you, their pearly whites shining through their gorgeous smiles.

Maybe it’s your cousin, the preschool teacher whose children abhor television and sugar and spend their days tending animals and making toys from scraps they find in the woods.

If you’re like me, you hold tightly to an idealized version of someone else as evidence to support an underlying angst that you’re not a good enough parent.

That sense of not enough pulls you away from the present moment.

I’ve no doubt that the mere act of becoming aware of your version of Susan Sarandon will go a long way to tame it. But what else can you do?

Remember my New Year’s invitation back in January? Some of you took me up on it and MANY of you wrote to say you thought it was a good idea.

Good ideas need action.

What’s one thing you LOVE about yourself as a parent?

What’s your specialty – reading bedtime stories? Being there for the neighborhood kids? Lightening up a tense moment with a perfectly timed joke?

Imagine if you spent a fraction of the time you do berating yourself for not living up to your Susan Sarandon, in taking stock of your positive qualities.

How would you feel? What might change?

Share right here and now: One thing, big or tiny that you do well as a parent. You deserve to take a moment to celebrate what works.

For kicks, share what it is about your ideal that “gets” you. That should provide some fun reading in the comments!

(If the website is getting in your way – send me an email – it can be one sentence or even one word!)

If you haven’t already done so, join me on this journey!

Wanna talk? Schedule a time here.

Mom survives serious teen slob years and lives to tell the tale!

Mom survives serious teen slob years and lives to tell the tale!

Amy Walker's messy teenDoes your pushing, coaxing and forcing your teen to clean up after herself fall on deaf ears?

When my son leaves a slue messes in his wake it can be downright maddening!

When you spill milk, wipe up after yourself, who do you thinks going to do it? What’s the dirty laundry doing on the floor? It’s no wonder you can’t find any clean socks, your dirty ones are scattered throughout the house!

Unfortunately these “helpful reminders” do little to change his behavior.

My nagging is driven by two fears…

  1. the fear that this kid will grow into an unemployed, slovenly 40 year old,
  2. the fear that I’m raising an entitled kid who thinks, “why should I look for my socks when magically another pair will appear in my drawer?

In today’s story, Tammy, school principal, parenting educator, and parent, shares what she learned as a result of her battles with her perennially messy daughter.

MessyTeenRoomTammy’s story:

My daughter Natasha has no issue with living in a messy room.

However, I do, so we made an agreement, years ago, that Sunday would be her cleanup day.

I found myself getting upset and refusing to enter her untidy room to say goodnight or even hangout with her.

She’d say, Mom, I’m internally organized so it doesn’t bother me to be a mess externally.

I told her it bothers me, and the rest of the family, so we need a plan to address the group’s desire for organization.

For the past four years, I’d go into Natasha’s room on Sunday mornings and ask her, what’s your plan for cleaning your room today?

Her response was usually, I’ll get to it eventually, or I’m on it. But there’d be no signs of movement.

On a good day I’d say something like, would you like me to help you get started? or I have faith in you to get it done.

She’d respond, I like doing it myself, or thanks for believing in me Mom. Five hours later she’d still be cleaning her room – looking pretty miserable.

On these so called “good” days while I wasn’t effective at motivating her, I wasn’t pushing her away.

On other days – let’s call them the bad days – I’d go into my mommy tirade and say things like, “how can you live in this pigsty?” “It’s disgusting in here!”

Here’s why her messy room was painful for our entire family.

My negative energy put the entire family on edge – they’d slink away into their own worlds for fear of crossing paths with my anger.

The unspoken truth was that my tornado of frustration and anger was far worse then her the physical mess.

One day it struck me that I was the one who needed to change.  I couldn’t MAKE her do anything so I backed off as best I could.

Then it happened – one Sunday morning was different. She woke up, had breakfast, cleaned and organized her room in an hour and had the rest of the day to read, play, do homework, paint pumpkins, go with me to the market, etc. I hadn’t said a word to her because by the time I peeked into her room, she was already in motion.

It dawned on me that this is how growth happens – for me it was a slow process – for her it seemed to happen overnight!

First what changed was me and what followed was a chance for Natasha to grow, at her own pace. I would like to think that our positive communication, over the years, those good days, helped to motivate her to finally clean her room on her own but I’ll never know for sure.

Whatever clicked for Natasha wasn’t as important as what clicked for me: I can’t “make her” do anything, but I can certainly encourage her and maintain a respectful way of communicating while she learns. It’s the process in which she learned how to care for her own things that mattered not the urgency for her to learn on my time line.

Back on that day when I saw her room was clean, I was shocked to say the least but tried to play it cool. I looked at her with a knowing, loving smile and said, “I notice you got your room clean today…how’s it feel?”

She looked so proud of herself and said simply, “If feels great!”


When you find yourself freaking out that your teen is a slob and fear they’ll still be one at 64, remember Tammy’s story. Being human, Tammy reacted in anger sometimes AND sometimes she was able, through self-awareness, to step back.

To me, it’s a testament to having faith in our kids.

There’s no magic fairy dust to MAKE them adopt your priorities. Your most powerful tool is CONNECTION.

Recommendations to foster and maintain your connection with your teen:

  1. Treat her with respect and when you don’t feel respected – as calmly as you can let her know you will speak with her at another time when she can be respectful – leave the room to give yourself breathing room.
  2. Apologize when you’re off your game, modeling that even you make mistakes so she can more readily admit and take responsibility for her mistakes.
  3. Take opportunities to connect – even when it feels inconvenient.
  4. Use light humor to keep power struggles at bay.

Recommendations to survive teen slob years:

  1. Create boundaries so that the mess is confined to your teens room.
  2. Allow nature to take it’s course – don’t rescue her when items are lost, dirty, etc.
  3. Take time to train your adolescent to do her own laundry – this way her entire clothing cycle is her responsibility and even better, you can have empathy when her favorite shirt is dirty.
  4. Remember that your child has different priorities than you do and that that is a good thing!

When you do your best to model what you value; respect, connection, and in this case, tidiness and communication – you’ll more likely see these qualities bloom, in their own way and time, in your developing adolescent.

What power struggle are you currently having? Share in the comment section below what you learned here that will support you.

If you haven’t already done so, join me on this journey!

Wanna talk? Schedule a time here.

Stop pretending to listen to your kids… they know you’re not.

Stop pretending to listen to your kids… they know you’re not.

I have a confession.

When my daughter asks me if I like Elsa or Anna better, my eyes glaze over. (In case you don’t live in my universe, they’re characters from Disney’s latest blockbuster, Frozen.)

Seriously, I don’t care, much less have an opinion.

I must’ve nodded off at a pivotal moment of character development. I wasn’t paying attention.

Yes, I admit it. Tuning into to my child’s frequency is sometimes a real challenge.

Apparently, I’m not the only one.

IMG_0309A mom in my last parenting series described a similar scene: Denise and her 5 year-old daughter, Tanya, were in the car. Tanya loves to weave a tale – especially when she’s got a captive audience! So, she started in on one of her detailed stories and after a minute, Denise tuned out and started with an auto pilot response of a ha, a ha, aha, in an unconscious attempt to convey listening to Tanya.

Tanya stopped, mid sentence.

You’re using your pretend voice mommy.

It’s humbling how kids NAIL IT. Count on your kid to expose, with raw precision, whatever it is you feel you’re “hiding”.

Have you been caught using your “pretend voice?”

Has your child let you know, in so many words, when you’re out to lunch?

Note: as they grow and become accustomed to your shenanigans, they’ll stop talking if they don’t feel listened to.

Denise told Tanya she was sorry and that indeed she wasn’t listening – [validating Tanya’s feelings] please start again at the beginning because I want to really pay attention to what you’re saying.

Here’re 3 tips for listening… even when the topic may not enthrall you.

  1. Contain the conversation so you have a fighting chance to earnestly listen.

Your kids will get the message you’re listening when you put distractions away. Phone in a drawer, laptop out of sight and T.V. off (so passé).

Make eye contact. Remember the term undivided attention? That’s what we’re after here. And yes, it’s no wonder we struggle with the ADHD epidemic when there’s a host of devices beeping to grab your attention.

  1. Clear the clutter from your mind. Sure, sounds good but what does mind clutter look like and how do you clear it?

I’m referring to those great ideas that pop up when someone’s telling you a story and you’re just waiting for a space to open so you can share your brilliant thought.

We’ve all been there.

Set your brilliant ideas (aka clutter) aside and imagine your mind is a clear blue sky, or whatever vast image inspires you. Mindfulness anyone?

  1. Curiosity creates a bridge. Although I might not be interested in Elsa and Anna, when I muster the curiosity about her question and it’s answer, I’m building a bridge between us. Of course it’s not about the characters but the qualities that she most admires and why.

Another option for Denise would have been to acknowledge that the container wasn’t ideal …“Honey Pie, you’re right, I wasn’t paying close attention. I’m sorry. Could you save that story for me when we get home because it’s hard for me to concentrate on two things at once and I’m focused on safe driving right now.”

When we truly L*I*S*T*E*N we get the juicy goods. We learn so much about what makes our children tick.

Sure, there’s plenty of tedious stuff too, but the juicy stuff is there. Just waiting for you to hear it :).

And in case you’re curious, my daughter likes Elsa better because she’s “not clumsy” and she’s got magic freezing powers! I hear that….

When do you find it difficult to listen to your child? Do you notice other times when it’s easy? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

If you haven’t already done so, join me on this journey!

Wanna talk? Schedule a time here.

Kids and Chores: Why Giving Up (and Giving In) Hurts Everyone

Kids and Chores: Why Giving Up (and Giving In) Hurts Everyone

Let’s face it. Most kids today  s–l—i—-d—–e  when it comes to contributing.

You go through the motions of assigning chores, but most of us find that it’s just easier to do them ourselves. Especially if the alternative is to beg, cajole and demand that they take out the recycling, take out the recyclingtake out the recycling!

Who can blame you? Why bother? It’s painful all the way around.

Here’s what I learned during supper with my Granny. From my vantage point, she’s not your average centenarian.

Sure, it’s the middle of summer and she’s wearing her blue wool sweater. But she’s got ALL her wits. — Only her hearing and sight are diminished.

granny photo with Sonja

Granny reading with my daughter

At 103, she’s a beauty with a blunt white bob, light blue eyes and a genuine interest in others that permeates every conversation.

She loves to ask about details. And she’s interested in mine.

On this occasion I made a conscious effort to ask her the questions… at least one.

Dinner with Granny

Due to her hearing loss, a snippet of our conversation (in a dining room full of people) went like this…

GRANNY, I’M STILL TEACHING PARENTING CLASSES.

Won-der-ful! (her pronunciation deliberate and bright)

I’M CURIOUS ABOUT YOUR EXPERIENCE AS A MOM. AFTER 78 YEARS OF PARENTING, WHAT WOULD YOU SAY WAS THE MOST IMPORTANT LESSON? 

I really don’t recall (she waves her hand and shakes her head as if that’s too far back to remember)… but mother and father (she’s referring to her parents) did a marvelous job.

WHAT DID THEY DO THAT WAS SO MARVELOUS? 

(She pauses for a few moments to consider before answering) I was allowed to help with a lot of things. We didn’t have any help so we were the help.

She grew up in a modest, hard working immigrant family in Perth Amboy, New Jersey. Her mother from Denmark, her father from Norway and she the youngest, by far, of 3 and the only girl to boot. She said her brothers always teased her saying she was favored.

So when she says she was allowed to help, she means it – she felt special sitting beside her mother making and mending clothes, weaving rugs, cooking meals, planting vegetables in the garden, etc.

Granny is a practical woman. Learning useful skills that enabled her to contribute to the wellbeing of her family was deeply satisfying.

Our conversation went on, she acknowledged how proud I must be of my growing children – my voice echoing throughout the dining room.

It’s that simple.

I’m struck by the power of a sense of usefulness to withstand the test of time. With love and caring as a cornerstone, Granny’s sense of being a useful member of the family is paramount in her childhood memories.

I know I struggle to get my kids involved in day to day housework. You and I both know, it’s so much easier to just do it ourselves!

Over dinner last summer Granny reminded me of just how worthwhile that effort is.

My story

Yesterday I had laundry that needed to be unloaded, carried, sorted and put away. Seven year-old S. was in a bit of a snit after-school and I knew asking her to help with this relatively light task could easily back fire and become an unpleasant battle.

Here’s what happened:

Me: I’m going to get the laundry – you can come give me a hand or meet me to fold it in my room.

She didn’t say anything but scurried along beside me (things are looking good!)

I took towels out of the drier.

Me: How many can you carry?

She got silly.

S: Mommy, put them all on my head, I CAN DO IT!

I played along for a bit and then just grabbed a few towels so that she could see as she walked, covered in towels, to our room.

In my bedroom she watched as I began folding clothes and towels and stacking them on my bed.

Me: How about you take alike things and put them away in your drawers – like this stack of pants?

S: Okay. (Miraculously she purposefully takes a few trips, arms fully loaded, and then decides it would be interesting to switch with me and be the folder)

We went on like this until the task was complete – all clothes and towels folded and put away. This is a minor miracle – usually things get put away over the course of a day or two – often clothes take the most direct route – basket to body).

Here are four fundamentals to keep in mind to increase your odds of success when encouraging kids to pitch in:

  1. Do house work WITH your kids – side by side if they are 7 and under. When they’re young they still love doing most every task with you so use that to your advantage while you still can!
  2. Shift your focus from getting the job done perfectly to seeing it as an opportunity to be together teaching your child life lessons/skills.
  3. Take time for training. With younger kids this means methodically doing a task together, with older children it means using a specific list of ”to do’s”, rather than a vague “clean up the playroom.”
  4. Hold the jobs lightly. While follow through is extremely important, you’ll win more cooperation by saying “I notice the dog looks hungry,” rather than demanding, “Rachel, feed the dog right now!”

Let’s brainstorm specific jobs kids can help with around the house. I hope this list encourages you in this challenging and wildly worthwhile parenting responsibility.

Here’s a list by age:

My daughter cleaning up a spill

My daughter cleaning up a spill

2 to 3

  • put toys away
  • feed pets
  • wipe up spills
  • put dirty clothes in hamper

4 to 6
the list from above plus

  • unload clean flatware from dishwasher
  • weed
  • water plants
  • set house alarm
  • bring in mail 
  • help prepare meals
  • scramble eggs

    My niece preparing apples for crisp

    My niece preparing apples for crisp

7 to 10

the lists from about plus

  • vacuum
  • help make and pack lunch
  • help do laundry
  • help load/unload dishwasher
  • help grocery shop
  • help make dinner (apple pie)
  • take pet for walk
  • make toast

10 to 13

the lists from above plus

  • fold and put away laundry
  • wash car
  • wash windows
  • babysit younger siblings
  • take out garbage & recycling
  • garden tasks
  • run walkable/bikeable errands

14 and up

I’m helping Granny make her famous apple pie crust!

the list from above plus

  • grocery shopping
  • cooking full meals for family
  • extended sibling sitting
  • transporting siblings and running errands in car

Being allowed to contribute has an impact that lasts a life-time.

I’ve only scratched the surface with these ideas. Please share yours in the comment section below and help grow these lists…and in doing so – help us all have more satisfied families!

If you haven’t already done so, join me on this journey!

Wanna talk? Schedule a time here.

4 Ways to Fix “If you’re not in the car in 1 minute I’m leaving without you!”

4 Ways to Fix “If you’re not in the car in 1 minute I’m leaving without you!”

It’s a typical morning, nothing out of the ordinary.

The boys haven’t brushed their teeth and I’m yelling, BRUSH! And then Get your rears in the car NOW.

It feels like we do this every. Single. Day.

When I get in the car, I feel down – this isn’t how I want my boys to get off to school in the morning. Yelling let’s go, let’s go, let’s gooooo! – Probably isn’t the most inspirational start to their day.

Sound familiar?  I know we all prefer mornings with our kids to be fueled by calm cooperation instead of high-volume threats and pleas!

It is possible.

I’ve created the Conversation Guides Series – including this Morning Departure Guide: Practice scripts for parents, so that getting out of the house is a wee-bit easier it’s my gift to you 🎁

I got the idea to create scripts because in a parenting class while role-playing a conversation, between a parent and teen (forgetting to talk out the garbage), using Positive Discipline tools, an observing parent vigorously raised her hand, “You were going really fast just then and I’m not sure what happened but it sounded awesome. Could you go through it again but this time slowly so I can understand?”

At first, the words may feel a little stiff or clunky – just like training wheels – but it’s worth giving them a try. Especially if you leave the house in the morning shaking your head (or crying), wondering why parenting is so darn hard.

The Conversation Guide slows down the parent child interaction. Think of it as parenting in slow motion, word by word, so you can rewind at any time.

It’s true, there are many ways to parent that fit with the Positive Discipline principles. My hope is that the four approaches I’ve offered here give you confidence to find your genuine voice. One that’s both kind and firm – respectful of your child and yourself.

Okay, back to my morning with the boys… what could I have done differently? Let’s see what happens when I ask a question instead of yelling demands at them.

“Guys, what do you need to do before you get in the car for school?” They actually mumble “brush our teeth…”

“Yes, great, I’ll meet you in the car when you’re done.”

Does that sound too easy? With enough repetition, time and the resulting trust, it works.

And if you get zero response to your question – or just eye-rolling – you can calmly let them know you’ve decided to wait in the car until they’re ready (take a good book so you’re doing something pleasurable while you serenely wait).

The two keys are:

  1. You follow through with what you say you’re going to do – this builds trust
  2. You remain calm, cool and collected – trust x 100

CONSIDERSHAREACT

What get’s in your way of having that calm morning you so desire?

What’s worked for you?

What gets in the way of you practicing these scripts? Share in a comment below so we can learn from each other.

If you haven’t already done so, join me on this journey!

Wanna talk? Schedule a time here.