Have you ever had to correct your child and they immediately started blaming themselves?
“I’m so stupid!”
“I never do anything right!”
Or maybe they get really angry and aggressive, and lash out at you or another person?
“You’re a MEAN Mommy!”
“SHE started it!”
Or maybe they just run away and hide. And when you try to speak to them, they cover their ears and won’t even look at you.
All of these responses show that your child might be overwhelmed by a shame response.
Even if we say it nicely and without anger, our sensitive child might feel that we think they are a bad person. This fear is overwhelming and can set off the protective response of our child’s nervous system (Fight-Flight-Freeze).
Getting mad and lashing out either at themselves or at you is the “fight” response of a distressed child.
Running away or covering their ears is the “flight” response.
The kid who hides may even be in “freeze” and not be able to speak.
These are not conscious actions but are the automatic protective responses of a sensitive nervous system. That response protects them from the yucky feelings they are experiencing. Remember, our emergency response system can’t tell the difference between a real threat (a tiger) and a perceived threat (‘the person I love most in the world thinks I’m bad’).
This is where empathic limits come in.
Limits are the “boundaries” that we sometimes need to put in place to either teach our child with a correction or help them meet our expectations with more support.
As a best practice, especially for sensitive children, we need to lead with empathy or by acknowledging the other person’s point of view.
Empathic limits let children know that even as we correct them, we still think that they’re a good person.
So what does this actually look like?
If your child does something wrong, for example, hitting their sibling, you can say:
“You must’ve been so upset to hit your brother. Oh, I know how upset you are, sweetheart. And at the same time, you can tell your brother how you feel, or you can come and get help from me. No hitting. Hitting hurts.”
The key is that you ALWAYS lead with empathy to let your child know that you understand what happened or why they did it and that you get their point of view.
By saying, first, “You must have been so upset,” you are letting your child know that you still think they are a good person, even though they made a mistake. You are suggesting that you know that under normal circumstances wouldn’t have done something like that- that they are not a bad person.
Another example might be if your child spills or breaks something: You might say, “Oh no! It looks like you didn’t see that glass of milk by your elbow!” Or “I bet you didn’t know that that’s what would have happened if you did XYZ.”
Empathic limits are important for all children (and for adults too!) but they are especially important if you have sensitive kids.
Even if you gently correct their behaviour without being mean or scolding, sensitive children often can’t handle the feeling of having disappointed you or doing something “wrong.”
When setting an empathic limit for, teaching or correcting a sensitive kid, it is important to make sure that they know they are still worthy and lovable even though they made a mistake. This is a big part of why perfectionists are the way they are; they can’t tolerate the feeling of having made a mistake.
Our empathy will help them have good self-worth, “even if.” Our empathy helps our child to focus on learning to do better next time rather than get trapped in a shame response, afraid we don’t love them anymore.
And the ‘limit’ part?
Once everyone is calm, that is the time to start problem solving and figuring out what additional support your kid needs to meet your expectations.
When empathic limits become your “go to” way of correcting your child, it will increase their sense of safety. This helps them feel understood so that they can accept limits and learn more easily and without the Fight-Flight-Freeze shame response. And a side benefit? It helps to neutralize the perfectionism that shames creates.
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Sarah Rosensweet is a certified peaceful parenting coach, speaker, and educator. She lives in Toronto with her husband and three big kids (ages 15, 18, and 21). Peaceful parenting is a non-punitive, connection-based approach that uses firm limits with lots of empathy. Sarah works one-on-one virtually with parents all over the world to help them go from frustrated and overwhelmed to, “We’ve got this!”
Read more at: www.sarahrosensweet.com
Specific examples are so helpful, thank you Sarah!
I especially find it helpful when you give example of what to do when a child does NOT do what u are hoping for. THAT is when I am really in need of help!!