“Noah’s head is bleeding.”
I had just stepped inside after my bike home from work. The day had started at 5 AM with an early training session and had ended with an intense, emotional meeting with a parent. In between were all the occurrences of a typical day as a pediatric psychologist; admittedly I was looking forward to some time off at the end of the year. Little did I know that twenty minutes prior, Noah had made contact with the corner of our molding in the living room as he tossed his brother’s new football to himself. It wasn’t the way I had planned to start my break.
As I stood there ascertaining the situation, and getting a firsthand view of the gash in his head, I was faced with challenges that loomed beyond the three staples he would later receive. My initial reaction was a mixture of concern and anger, especially after I figured out that the bleeding was minimal despite a noticeable, superficial wound. In the midst of my reaction, I was forced to consider a few obvious, yet easy to dismiss realities. One, Noah seemed okay and it could have been way worse (as it has been before in our family). Two, Noah didn’t do it intentionally, as like many other five-year-olds, the new football superseded good decision-making. Three, I was fortunate to be off work tomorrow, unlike most weekdays.
Yet as all these realities registered in my head, I found a competing urge build up inside. I really just wanted to be mad, and let everyone know that my day had already been overflowing with tasks and challenges. Frankly, there was a part of me that was feeling as sorry for myself as for Noah (who had just turned the corner smiling with a washrag on his head). I just wanted to relax and settle into a semi-quiet evening. It would not be the case. And at this moment, the essential elements for effective parenting were staring me in the face: empathy, emotional regulation, and endurance.
For every parent who desires to be effective, no elements loom more important than these. By empathy, I mean the ability to understand just how another person feels, or said in another way, put “yourself in his or her shoes.” It doesn’t mean you have to agree or respond right away, but it does mean you truly attempt to understand what he or she is experiencing. Emotional regulation is the ability is to restrain, reduce, and even alter emotional reactions in a way that is good for the situation, and results in actions that are effective and value-based, not just cathartic and displaced. Endurance is how a person sustains energy and perseveres (whether it be physically, psychologically, or otherwise) through obstacles and strain. Although empathy, emotional regulation, and endurance each have a tremendous impact on how we execute specific parenting behaviors, they do not operate independently. The more empathetic and enduring I am, the more likely I will regulate my emotions; the more I regulate my emotions, the more empathy I will feel, and so on.
Vast amounts of research and personal experiences are not the only source of evidence for this. I also know this from parents I see each week. Most parents come to my office with great intentions to improve their child’s and family’s circumstances. Still, after strategies are discussed and agreed upon, I regularly find that parents come back to me acknowledging that these changes were either not implemented or not sustained. Repeatedly, it has everything to do with those three E’s.
All of this has led me consider a shift in the way I look at myself as a parent. I used to think it was first and foremost about how well I could keep up the specific demands our children brought. Now I increasingly believe that parenting begins and ends with just what we do to increase the empathy, emotional regulation, and endurance we possess. When we do this, we might be surprised to find just how each day and year seems more manageable, and meaningful. Even if we are staring at an open head wound at the end of a long day.