Helping kids with empathy

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News of the shooting in Newtown, CT. is vibrating through my body.  I can feel the weight of it: the suffering, fear, shock, desperation, anger, and grief.   It shows up in me as real, physical pain:  stomach ache, headache, tension in my neck, jaw, abdomen, crushing chest, and a feeling like boiling blood I know well as anxiety.  I live on the opposite side of the country and yet I am connected to those parents, teachers and kids at Sandy Hook Elementary in a very real way.  When I was a kid, and heard tragic news like this, I didn’t know how to handle my emotions. Whether the scary stuff on TV was real or imaginary, as a kid, it felt the same.  I was afraid, but I didn’t know what to do with my fear.  It seemed the right thing to do was to “feel bad” for others.  My big, empathic heart couldn’t handle the guilt, grief and fear.  This wasn’t my pain or my problem, but somehow I thought that if I suffered, I could alleviate the suffering of others.  If I joined them in grief, if I carried the burden with them, I could lessen it.  I was wrong.  All this got me was decades of chronic pain, anxiety and a fear of bad things happening. I tried writing notes and donating money, but it never felt like enough. Tragedy’s, like the one at Sandy Hook Elementary School, are opportunities to teach our children healthy ways to deal with their emotions.  It can be hard to notice if your child is reacting in these ways but asking them what they feel, and what they do with that feeling, is a good place to start.  Many kids (and adults) will cope by….
  1. Worrying, pulling-back from life, living small and fearfully, breathing shallowly, just in case a threat shows up.  Constantly staying in fight or flight, when there is no immediate danger, is horrible for your emotional and physical well-being and does nothing for those suffering. This adds more fearful energy to the world, which causes us to do things like horde weapons of mass destruction and maintain the right to bear arms against our neighbors and classmates.
  2. Get Mad – We can be angry at the shooter, the NRA, video games, the president, the lack of care for mentally ill, anyone.  For many people, anger is more comfortable than fear so they stay here, hoping it will lead them to productive action.   This is the “fight” response, in action.  It feels good to use it and get the energy out, but adding more of this angry/fearful/fighting energy to the world is just going to result in more violence.
  3. Get Tough- Many times, big hearted kids (and adults) will grow tough exteriors to mask the really deep feelings and negative thoughts they think about themselves.  They ignore, act cool, like they don’t care, deny their own dark side, and try to act perfectly, sometimes even self-righteous. (The emotion will be looking for a way out so don’t be surprised if they explode at a dead cat in the road or missed soccer goal).
  4. Guilt/Sadness – Somehow we get the idea that if we suffer along, it helps alleviate the burdens of others.  When I feel sad and guilty, that just adds more suffering and depression to the world.  Instead, feel the grief and guilt in your body and transform it into love.  Hug your kids, appreciate your life, but do it from a place of love, not fear.   (You’ll know the difference because love feels expansive, fear feels graspy and scarce).
In order to send love to Newtown, Connecticut, you have to feel it in yourself first.  The first step for all of us is to acknowledge and label their emotion.  When a big, scary, yucky feeling gets named, it diffuses it and makes it easier to manage.  Ask yourself, “What am I feeling?” or “What am I trying NOT to feel?”  Is it anger? sadness? guilt? fear? We all have the potential for darkness, given the right brain chemistry and environmental circumstances.  Look for something you have done or said you feel bad about and forgive that part of you.  (Notice where you feel the guilt in your body and what color it is, then breathe into it and relax around it until you can transform it into a color that feels like love, seems weird but it works).  Once you can forgive yourself for your shortcomings, you can fill it with love. From this place, you can then send gratitude and love out to the world, the victims, the troubled soul of the shooter, everyone.  Pet your dog, sing Christmas Carols, cook something delicious, make a list of things you love about yourself and your kids.  Do whatever you can to shift to the state of gratitude and peace.  The world doesn’t need more suffering.  The world is hungry for love. Take this opportunity to role model for your kids how much power they have to feel and send LOVE.

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5 thoughts on “Helping kids with empathy”

  1. You are so welcome. I couldn’t believe how quickly my kids found out about the shooting. I asked them how they felt and sure enough, my sensitive son reacted the same as me when I was a kid (fearful, holding tension, guilty). My daughter, who tries to be perfect, found something to forgive herself for. It was beautiful. Thanks for spreading the love, Naomi.

  2. Thanks Torie for finding a way to be productive through all this. I’ve been letting my children get away with everything because I can’t stand the thought of being mad at them right now. They’re wondering why I’m hugging and kissing them nonstop and walking around with tears in my eyes. I’ve tried to shield them from the news but must admit I’m so scared for them to go to school tomorrow and hear about what happened. I will remember your words when the time comes. Thank you!

  3. Hi Torie,
    Thanks for shining light on this topic. I see you are in the Bay area and wanted to see if you have come across Challenge Day.org and their work in schools to promote truth-telling among students as a means for creating more connection and love. Let’s take Sandy Nook as a springboard to adding more social emotional learning to our school systems.

  4. Yes, Scott, I have been very impressed with the Challenge Day concept but have not yet seen it done in person. I teach a class for parents on Leading Teens and get tremendous feedback with the emotional intelligence exercises. The kids are hungry for it and the parents quickly see the value. thanks for your comment.

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