Empathy

empathy

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Why Can’t You Just Move On?

graduateWe are just about to enter another commencement season here in Texas. High schools and colleges will graduate students by the thousands most weekends between mid-May and mid-June. I attended a high school graduation last year and was very impressed as I heard about the students academic achievements.

While I listened I started thinking about our kids. I thought how there are some difficult days when we may have to deal with an issue for the tenth time that day and we wonder when we won’t have to deal with it again. And like most of us, I remembered times when I would wonder when they would just “get past” some of their behaviors. I know that I was wrong because healing and growing are different from ignoring and moving on, no matter how hard we try to convince ourselves that they are the same thing.

There are some in the adoption and foster care community who believe that if you just love your kids enough, and if you can get enough distance from their trauma (relational, physical, or any other), that they will graduate from their behaviors. That’s where many people go wrong, our kids need to heal instead of just move on from one stage of their lives to the next. Besides, where is the evidence that supports that way of thinking?

When I hear people say that our kids need to “get over it and just move on” I always come back to the same question; if moving on is so easy then why are there adults who are still afraid of the dark?

It’s almost like we want to separate our kids from their pasts because we think that is what’s best for them and easiest for us, although I can’t think of a single time where sweeping things under the rug was the best long term solution for anything. Something about things that are done in the darkness being brought into the light keeps tugging at me.

The problem with “time heals all wounds” is that we, in our fast paced culture, think that there is a direct time correlation between wounds and healing. For example, if a child went hungry during their first two years of their life then surely having food whenever they want for the next two years should be enough for them to trust that they won’t go hungry again. It’s almost like we assume that one cancels out the other. We want to believe that there is a 1:1 ratio between trauma and healing. But I can assure you that is not the case. Healing takes time and effort.

I recently fell and cut my leg. Two weeks later it is healed and there is a scar where the cut once was. It only took two seconds to cut my leg, but it has taken 1,210,000 seconds, give or take, for it to heal. That’s a wound to healing ratio of 1:605,000 and there will always be a scar to remind me of my wound.

We universally accept certain realities about physical injuries. We accept that healing takes a lot longer than the original injury took to inflict and that we will always have scars to remind us of our wounds.

If we easily accept the realities of physical wounds why can’t we accept those same realities when it comes to emotional wounds?

If a child experienced hunger for any amount of time it is probably safe to assume that they will spend their lifetime wondering if they will always have enough to eat. Actor Sidney Poitier famously carries a candy bar in his pocket because he experienced hunger as a child and even with his wealth and his fame he needs to know that he has immediate access to food whenever he wants it.

If a child was abandoned then you need to assume that it will take many years of you coming back every time you leave before they will consider that people are safe and can be trusted. Because healing takes effort and a lot more time than it took to inflict the original wound.

Always remember that our kids need to heal and not simply graduate from their behaviors. If we really want them to move forward we have to realize that true graduation is the result of healing. Our kids need to know that they can trust us. We need to love them in their difficult moments as well as their easy moments. We need to love them when their behaviors make sense and when they don’t.

Why Changing a Child’s Story Matters

One of the most helpful things ever shared with me is the idea that we spend as much time managing perceptions as we do dealing with reality. That rings true in almost every avenue of life and perhaps none more so than with our kids, especially as it relates to their self-worth and self-image.

Some of our kids have wounds that run deep and often our instincts are to either feel sorry for them or to get frustrated when they “don’t act their age.” It’s easy to forget that chronology and development are two different things and it’s easy to forget that our kids don’t need sympathy. What they need is empathy.

Sympathy is the act of feeling sorry for someone, which doesn’t really help them unless it’s a stepping stone toward what they need. And what our kids need is empathy because it’s a choice we make to put ourselves in their shoes. It’s us caring enough to try to see things from their perspective. Put another way, sympathy puts them across the table from us, empathy offers them a seat next to us.

Yes, our kids have things in their past that kids shouldn’t have to deal with. It’s our responsibility to make sure that they’re not victims of the present, and to help them any way we can.

In terms of managing what can usually be a pretty negative self-image, we have to remember that we can’t parent our kids where we think they should be, we have to parent them where they are. This is key and can be hard if you’ve succeeded at everything you ever attempted because many of our kids don’t come to us with memories of success. They usually arrive with a pretty negative narrative.

We have to remember that words have power. The bible tells us that “death and life are in the power of the tongue.” This proverb is a double-edged sword because it reminds us that our words can both hurt and heal.

The good news is that we know we can replace every negative thought with a positive word. If one of our kids is struggling with their math and says, “I am stupid” we have to immediately tell them that they are smart and remind them of a time we struggled with something and how we overcame the challenge.

We have to change their narrative. We have to shift the focus from their self-perception to the reality of who they are because we can’t help them heal if we don’t.

We have to tell them that they matter to us, and they are important to the creator of the universe, when they say that they are unloved. We have to remind them of their successes when they call themselves failures. We have to tell them that everybody makes mistakes when they mess up and call themselves bad.

We have to help our kids see themselves the way we see them and the way God sees them. They are precious in his sight and they need to know that they are. They need to rest safe in the knowledge that they are children of God.

Every day brings new challenges and some days it feels like we made progress while others feel like we lost ground. Stay strong. God believes in you.

While I know myself as a creation of God, I am also obligated to realize and remember that everyone else and everything else are also God’s creation.
– Maya Angelou