Toddler Emotions & Empathetic Parenting: An Interview with Carrie Contey, PhD

Anyone with a toddler knows how perplexing it can be to witness the rapid onset of emotional explosions.  One minute you’re happily making lunch together, the next minute your 2 year-old has thrown herself onto the floor in tears because you started to spread jam on the slice of bread and she wanted to do it. On the flip side, in the middle of a full-blown tantrum, you can ask a completely random question that might stop the outburst mid-scream and suddenly get an answer to your question in a fully composed voice.

Just two years, or slightly more or less on the planet — our little tots simply haven’t learned how to regulate their emotions yet. I learned this and a whole lot more from my favorite parenting coach, Carrie Contey, co-founder of Slow Family Living. In a recent interview with Carrie, I asked her to help me define healthy parental empathy as I would so much like to provide that for my children.

What does it look like?  How best can I be present for my children’s emotions?

She said, “Their feelings are like weather, they roll in, they roll out, the sun shines, the wind blows, etc. Emotional expression is how a child’s system rebalances itself. Emotions aren’t good or bad. They just are.” 

Amen to that. Sometimes I wish I had the freedom to fully emote without restraint like my 3 year-old!

What I’m learning as a parent is what it means to really allow and support my children to feel what they feel.  I think there’s a natural mothering instinct that we take on after our babies are born to make everything OK as quickly as possible.  I certainly have had a very physical, visceral response to hearing my babies cry. My body temperature rises, my chest tightens, and I’m ignited to take action.

To maintain this sensitivity is part of what attachment parenting is all about. We want our children to establish trust and know we are here to care for them. When your baby becomes a toddler, providing support for his or her emotions requires a new level of empathy. Now, as Carrie has said, the greatest gift you can provide your child is learning how to be with them in the middle of their big emotions.

“Children have feelings — lots and lots of them — but they cannot control how big they will be or how long they will last,” shared Carrie. “When a parent is available to offer their child what I call ‘a non-anxious mirroring presence’ and (say things like) ‘I’m with you, you are having big feelings, I see you, it will pass…’ during a big emotional storm it does two things: 1) It helps the child know that he or she is safe in the feelings and 2) It give the child an external understanding of what is happening. As a result over the long term, years and years, the child will develop an internal voice that allows him/her to move through big emotional states for him or herself.”

Being present to the emotions. Acknowledging them. Helping define them. Guiding your child to know they are temporary. Avoiding the temptation to smother them with, “You’re OK.  You’re OK.  You’re OK.”

In the big picture, Yes. We’re all ultimately OK and perhaps a gentle reminder of this big picture truth throughout childhood is nice.  But how great would it be for a child to also feel full acknowledgment of his or her anger, sadness, disappointment, frustration?

“You are so disappointed because you were REALLY excited about spreading jam yourself! Doing things yourself is important and fun for you. You feel so sad and angry right now! I’m sorry I didn’t remember that you like to do this. Would you like to spread the almond butter?”

I’m certainly far from an expert, but I think the trick to true empathetic parenting is the the ability to separate my emotions from my child’s and be fully present to her feelings.  It’s a tricky dance because it’s easy to slip past empathy and into what I call emotional trumping. This is when you accidentally let your own emotions trump those of your child.

“Why are you so upset about a sandwich? That’s just silly!”

Or the converse from another recent scenario at our house.  My toddler reported nonchalantly  that another child at preschool said, “You’re not my friend anymore.”  This may have been disappointing for my child to hear – or it may not.  She quite likely may have been purely curious as to what it means to be a friend or not be a friend.

But when I heard this, my protective Mama Bear inner-growl came out immediately and suddenly I found myself inadvertently projecting my own early childhood baggage of being rejected by friends onto my 3 year-old’s experience.

“Who said that you honey?” I asked.  “Why did she say that to you?”  “That is not a nice thing to say….”  Blah-ditty blah.

Carrie’s definition of the best kind of empathetic parenting is great.  She says, “It’s spacious and attuned. It’s not going headlong into the feelings with the child, rather witnessing with love and compassion and recognizing that he/she is having her own experience. The parent’s work is to be present and acknowledge with a loving felt sense.”

Such great work Carrie is doing for our community and beyond.  I imagine I’ll be referencing her words of wisdom a lot here on Attachment

Blessings to all.

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4 Responses to “Toddler Emotions & Empathetic Parenting: An Interview with Carrie Contey, PhD”

  1. Catherine says:

    Interesting site 🙂 Great article, thank you

  2. amy says:

    Thank you for this post! On days that I feel I’m doing a “better” job of parenting, I find myself figuratively riding the waves of emotion with my toddler. Validating, listening, then moving on.

    I like the sound of Slow Family Living. I’ll have to check it out.

  3. Sonya Feher says:

    Great tips here from both you and Carrie about how to be present and let our kids have their own feelings (and not get theirs confused for ours). In so many situations, “I see you. I am here” is such a powerful connective way of parenting. I really like Carrie’s recommendation to include “You are having big feelings. They will pass.” There are plenty of times I need to give myself that message and I’m sure it will help my toddler too. Thanks!

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