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Helping kids navigate trauma and violence with empathy

Published in RoughDraft on October 19, 2023.

Grandpapa, why don't people like us?

This question was from a little girl looking into the eyes of hate and animosity, but not that alone. She was speaking to her Atlantan grandfather on the phone while staring down death in the form of murderous extremists inside a bomb shelter in wartorn Israel. 

This is different. 

How do we explain hate and the vicious, heinous crimes of war to our little ones, so innocent of brutality? And should we even talk about it with them?

I’m reminded of “Night,” Ellie Weisel’s seminal autobiographical account of his suffering through the atrocities of the Holocaust. He accompanied his father through months of agonizing imprisonment, torture at the hands of terrorist executors, and murderous extremists. Ripped from his home, his loved ones were brutally murdered in front of him. He was 14 years old when he experienced these things and couldn’t write of his experiences for decades. 

There is a place of healing that the mind can often rest in as a respite from trauma, but it can take years for the psyche to emerge to even begin to awaken to horrors that the mind naturally sets aside in a special place to wait. Wait until the heart, the soul and the mind are ready to bring forth into consciousness. Psychologists call this phenomenon repression, the act of subconsciously blocking ideas or impulses that are undesirable. The defense mechanism may be present in someone who has no recollection of a traumatic event, even though they were conscious and aware during the event. 

This phenomenon is often used in conjunction with suppression, the two concepts are intertwined and sometimes confused. Suppression uses consciousness and active choice to avoid feeling or expressing emotions related to the pain of past experiences.

But what do we do when we are not the ones looking into the eyes of terror but love those who do? We experience suffering when we see people we care about suffer. 

So, how do we lead our kids into these sometimes confusing emotions and experiences?

In a word, empathy.

Researchers have long described empathy as the human ability to perceive others emotions and take action moving toward them. It’s the ability to place yourself in their frame of reference, with their perspective. It’s more than feeling sorry for others, recognizing their pain, or wishing things were better; empathy is a movement of heart, mind, and intentional action. 

Empathy is the bridge between people in the human experience. It’s the fabric of what connects us to one another as a society, a community of individuals, a collection of unique people. Research says empathy plays a critical interpersonal and societal role, enabling the sharing of experiences, needs, and desires between individuals…that promotes prosocial behavior.

Empathy is a skill that must be exemplified, taught, and encouraged in children. We are born with natural ability, but we can get better with practice. And practice we must. 

There is a temptation in the cultural moment we are in to vilify another, often on account that we perceive their suffering as self-imposed or morally justified, “they’re getting what they deserve”, or “if they wanted to they could’ve done something about it”. If we can’t relate to the situation or circumstance then often seeing the suffering of others can get put into an easy place of apathy. Elie Weisel, the teenage boy who suffered at the hands of the holocaust believed “the opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference.”

This is where cognitive empathy can chime in when emotions do not naturally occur. Cognitive empathy must play a role when a lack of emotional empathy exists because of racial, ethnic, religious, or physical differences.  We are full of conscious and unconscious bias and these are unavoidable at times. We will favor one group over the next, but where there is an absence of emotion, we can seek to understand the plight of another if not with our hearts, with our heads. Helping kids name emotions, recalling times when they had similar feelings or experiences, and thinking of what others thought processes might be are all ways to encourage forms of emotional and cognitive empathy. 

Parents, teachers and caregivers should reassure kids that they are safe and secure. That war and conflict in other countries, doesn’t mean there is a war at home or in our country. Kids need to feel safe and secure in their home environment, even when the world at large sends messages that tumult is near and fear-mongering is a media lure for clicks and likes. 

Kids, according to their age, should be shielded from seeing or hearing disturbing images of brutality or terror. Children can be sensitive to stimulation and even how we speak about brutality should be respectful of age and maturity level. Images and clips of brutality are always present online. Video footage of violent scenes doesn’t encourage empathy and can actually imprint trauma on a young person’s mind and emotions. 

So how do we teach our children to respond to the presence of hate, murder and war across the globe? In a similar fashion to how we teach them to respond to their classmate who trips and gets a bloody knee on the playground. You don’t just look at them and walk away, rather you respond with a hug and extend a hand to help them up. 

Elie Weisel went on to win the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to assist in defending human rights and peace around the world. In his acceptance speech, he said, 

There is so much to be done, there is so much that can be done. One person — a Raoul Wallenberg, an Albert Schweitzer, Martin Luther King, Jr. — one person of integrity, can make a difference, a difference of life and death. As long as one dissident is in prison, our freedom will not be true. As long as one child is hungry, our life will be filled with anguish and shame. What all these victims need above all is to know that they are not alone; that we are not forgetting them, that when their voices are stifled we shall lend them ours, that while their freedom depends on ours, the quality of our freedom depends on theirs.

Encouraging our children that ‘one person of integrity’ matters. One voice matters, their voice matters. Every act of empathy builds a bridge to another, even an act of a child. They have a choice as to what they lend their voice and it’s evermore important to use it in empathy for others; building bridges on the playground and even across lines of pain and hostility. 


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