The radio was on full blast and Cam and I rode to his friend’s birthday party fist pumping and head banging on a rainy Saturday. Tunes like ‘We Will Rock You’, ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’, and ‘White Wedding’ rang out. I felt simultaneously connected to Cam and my past, and enjoyed bridging that gap through music. Cam was majorly head bobbing and melodiously stumbling over made-up words as he sang. Next, Piano Man came on. I belted out the song and encouraged Cam to listen the story being told. Deep into Piano Man, I looked in the rear view mirror and saw a sullen face on the verge of tears. I felt surprised as I was filled with joy. When I asked how he felt, Cam toppled over, hid his face, and said “I miss Ralph” (our deceased dog of 4 years). Clearly, he deeply empathized with the lonely souls in Piano Man and did not understand the emotion he felt.
Over the years, I realized Cam is sincerely empathic and caring — something I am incredibly proud of. It is a wonderful quality but his little heart pumps like a race car engine in a Toyota’s body. He often feels things he can’t yet understand and his mind works hard to match the feeling with experience. “I miss Ralph” has become his default explanation for unexpected sadness or sorrow he can’t place. My job as a Mom is not to distract him from the emotion or guide him towards happiness but rather to help him understand himself by empathizing and validating his experience — “I wonder if you feel sad because you can really imagine what those people are feeling. That is a true gift and I love that about you. You deeply connect with people and that is very special.”
It has taken me time to understand this side of Cam. When he was younger, he would sometimes get overwhelmed in larger groups (usually at our house), and act out. I mistakenly responded to the behavior without putting it in context. Looking back, I now realize he was incredibly attuned to the social dynamic and flooded with emotion. Not too long ago, he told me he had a classmate who would periodically cry and every time that happened he would say, “I get a funny feeling in my belly. I feel embarrassed and sad at the same time for her and want her to stop” — he didn’t understand how to interpret the physical sensations of emotion.
I write about this experience because it took me time to interpret Cam in this way and it highlights that that all of our children have aspects of themselves they do not yet comprehend. Part of our job as parents is to help our little ones decode who they are, assisting in creating a self-narrative. Look to the surprising and often frustrating behavior as a clue to what this is for your child. Step back from the behavior and really ask yourself what your child needs in the moment — what is the unexpressed emotion? How is this reflective of their personality? Help the child put language to the emotion and experience. And, remember your child is a different person than you and their story is unique.
Originally published at medium.com