Parenting With Self-Empathy

crying girl

Sometimes I feel like this, too.

Guilt is a subject that comes up frequently in discussions about parenting, and it’s something that most of us have felt at one time or another. Most of us give a fair amount of thought to the kind of parents we would like to be and the kind of relationship we would like to have with our children. Being parents, we’re also acutely aware of the fact that life takes unexpected turns. Illnesses, teething, temper tantrums, boundary testing, and the everyday stressors of life as an adult can quickly throw us off course, creating a serious divide between our visions of the ideal parent and our assessment of ourselves. If you’re like me, you may look at this divide and jump immediately to guilt and blame. We know these things are not our children’s fault, so clearly the blame has to fall on us: Why can’t I be more patient? Why can’t I focus on my time with my child instead of stressing over my to-do list?! We parents can be so hard on ourselves.

There’s a concept in the book Nonviolent Communication, and it has transformed the way I parent and significantly reduced the amount of blame I place on myself. It’s called self-empathy. Here’s the thing: Our children have many needs, and it’s largely our job, especially when they’re very young, to make sure these needs are met. At the same time, we have some very real needs as well. Meeting their needs demands many things of us, but among the most useful is empathy. If we can put ourselves in our children’s shoes and work to understand what they are thinking and feeling, it’s much easier to respond to them with patience, and in a way that meets their needs. As the book explains, however, if we’re not getting enough empathy ourselves, it can be awfully hard for us to offer it to others. We have to fill our own cups, so to speak, before we can give others what they need.

Even on the very best days, parenting can be tough, but when life gets harder it becomes even more difficult to parent in the way we would like. This is okay. It’s okay to feel frustrated, impatient, irritated, touched out. Many of us are adept at noticing and accepting these feelings in our children, but we forget that it’s normal for us to feel them as well. Humans feel these things regardless of age, and often the best way to heal and move on is by receiving empathy. It’s wonderful when we can get this from a close friend, our spouse, a therapist, or another trusted person, but often we find ourselves needing to give to our children when we haven’t had a chance to process our own difficult feelings with another person. In these times, we can give empathy to ourselves.

I have a toddler, and she often becomes frustrated at things that seem small to an adult. She may launch into a bout of screaming because she’s having trouble taking her shoe off, and any attempt on my part to help only leads to more frustrated, ear-piercing screams. On my good days, I can calmly approach and really empathize with her, saying something along the lines of, “It looks like you’re feeling really frustrated. You’re having a hard time with your shoe. Would you like a hand?” I can sit with her and quietly offer support while she works through the difficult moment. On other days, I just don’t have it in me. I might stand a few feet away, feeling exasperated. It might take all I have to stop myself from walking over, hurriedly taking the shoe off, and admonishing her to calm down. Does my beautiful daughter deserve an always patient mama who never becomes exasperated? Sure, but what she got was a human one, and I think that’s okay.

In cases like this, self-empathy for me is a simple process of acknowledging my feelings and giving myself a little grace before I interact with my daughter. I might notice that, “Gosh, I’m really tired. We got fitful sleep last night, and woke up too early. I’ll have to try to nap with her today.” The thing is, it’s natural and normal to feel tired sometimes, and it makes sense that when you’re extra tired you won’t have quite as much patience as on your most well-rested days. I could beat myself up, or I could just accept and allow myself to feel these normal feelings, then move on and parent to the best of my ability from there. This doesn’t mean giving myself a pass to spend the day in a funk, it just means accepting my humanness and difficult feelings, just as I would do for my daughter.

When I have taken time to notice and accept what’s going on with me, I can usually respond to my daughter in the way I’d like, despite it all. Taking the little bit of time necessary to listen to and honor myself, wherever I am, makes it possible to love both my daughter, and myself, and to meet her needs as well as my own. There’s a tendency among parents to meet our children’s needs first, and that’s wonderful, but the problem arises when we get so busy that we forget to stop and tend to our own. We’re human, we have needs, and this is okay.


Melissa Kemendo, Author of Vibrant Wanderings

Melissa has perfected the art of working from home without being gainfully employed. She is mom to two vibrant, curious children, with whom she and her husband live and adventure in the Washington, DC area. When she’s not baking, pushing swings, and attempting yet again to summit laundry mountain, she’s working on the Montessori community program for which she acts as teacher, to her own daughter and a handful of other children. She can also often be found writing about something Montessori-related, or just motherhood in general, on her blog, Vibrant Wanderings.

14 Responses to Parenting With Self-Empathy

  1. Amy G  

    Thank you for this post! Last night was a really tough night for sleeping, and at times I just wasn’t being the Mama I want to be. But, reading this reminds me it’s ok and understandable. I have to read NVC!!

  2. Sylvia@MaMammalia

    Really beautiful post! We’ve had a run of rough nights, and hence days, so this was a great reminder for me today. Funny, I wrote something along the same lines awhile back, but this post feels like it sunk it deeper. Thank you!
    P.S. I used to live on Guam, too!

  3. kathleen  

    Hi Melissa,

    I really like this post and was wondering if you would be interested in me publishing it in my magazine. It’s just a small magazine (2000 copies locally) and I can’t offer to pay you I’m afraid as I haven’t made any profit yet but what do you think?

  4. Janine  

    YES YES YES. Although I wish that I could find a better in-between rather than either being super mom patient or flying off the handle. I feel like i am usually really empathetic, as I have a tendency to be sensitive to little things myself. Sometimes though, it is just impossible to wrap my head around why not be allowed to touch the dishwasher is meltdown-worthy.

  5. melissa aka equidae

    Its lovely reading this as I was just thinking about this problem in my head. However, how do I get myself to step back BEFORE sending a tirade to my son? I tend to be in a fully blown tantrum myself by the time I realise I shouldn’t have and should have taken some time to think about it. This taking a breath before speaking has me in knots as I cant seem to do it 🙁

    • Melissa  

      It really can be a challenge to stop and think in tough situations. I definitely catch myself a bit too late sometimes as well! I like to think of those as good opportunities to model humility and a good apology – and to be honest about my own feelings.

      “I’m sorry. Let me try start over. I’m feeling extra tired/cranky/etc today, and I answered before I took time to think about it. I’d like to try to again a little more calmly.” Or something along those lines. I think it’s healthy for our kids to see us mess up, and handle it gracefully! <3

  6. Amy Phoenix  

    Thank you, Melissa, this is lovely and congrats on having it published in a local mag. 🙂