Teachable moments: Empathy in action in times of tragedy

October 6, 2017 | Posted in: Early Learners, Elementary, High School, Middle Years

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” 

Perhaps the most famous quote from everyone’s favorite neighbor, Fred Rogers, came from a lesson from his mother, detailing empathy in action.

Our world is a magnificent place. But at times, it can be very scary. Details and updates of acts of violence, natural disasters, tragedy and trauma push through as notifications on our phones and pop-ups on our computer screens. No matter where tragedy strikes, a continent away or in your own backyard, it can be upsetting for anyone regardless of age. As parents, your first duty is ensuring your children feel safe and secure. How you deal with that is your prerogative, but it can also be a learning experience to jump-start empathy in action. Parent Today has covered this topic in the past.

Dr. Michele Borba, an educational psychologist, has spent the last ten years researching the importance of fostering empathy in children. She believes in times of trouble, one of the best ways to reduce kids’ feelings of hopelessness is to find ways to comfort victims and help the affected community. “Empathy is the answer to violence, cruelty and tragedy,” she says.

Borba fashioned four elements that parents can use to reassure children that their world is safe and caring: T.A.L.K.

T – Tune in to your child’s emotions

A – Assure safety and be available

L – Listen patiently

K – Kindle empathy and do something positive

Borba says, “One easy way to nurture empathy is to encourage your child to imagine being the people he or she sees on the news. Ask: How would you feel if that was you? What do you think they need? Their answers often promote constructive ideas. Then help them develop a positive course of action and offer to assist them in carrying it out.”

“By modeling empathy, we teach our children lessons that will help to build a better future for all of us. It’s certainly a future our kids deserve.”

Why we need to teach our children empathy

The advantages of instilling empathy into children may seem obvious, but according to Borba, empathy can not only lead to happier children, but it also helps when it comes to developing personal and professional relationships that are critical to success.

Dr. Stacey Alexander, a school psychologist in the Schoharie Central School District in Schoharie, N.Y., defines empathy as “the ability to have an emotional reaction to someone else’s feelings and/or experiences. It’s putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and connecting to them on a personal level.”

While empathy may seem like something that’s innate in us, it’s not something we’re born with. Children can certainly be more naturally empathetic than some of their peers, but empathy is a cognitive and emotional skill that must be taught.

Have you ever seen a small child do something wrong and when prompted to apologize – if they do – a parent then respond with, “No! Like you mean it!”

“Empathy is more than just saying the right words, it’s having a gut emotional reaction to someone’s pain and strife, or even being happy about someone’s joy,” says Alexander.

“You can’t force a child or even an adult to feel bad when others are hurting. So that’s why it can be tricky,” Alexander continues. “Empathy falls under the veil of the skills parents and schools teach, and while it’s something that needs to be taught, it’s also something that needs to be nurtured. I think empathy really clicks through an experience.”

Dr. Alexander and her intern Jasmin Burke are familiar with both sides of the empathy spectrum, having experienced empathy for their own community, as well as having been on the receiving end of empathetic responses.

In August 2011, flooding from tropical storms Irene and Lee resulted in nearly 150 Schoharie Central School students becoming homeless or displaced. Nearly 80% of the homes in the Village of Schoharie were destroyed or condemned, and 30% of homes in nearby Esperance were severely damaged, condemned or lost in flood waters.

Burke had just graduated from a Schoharie County high school and was three days away from leaving for college at nearby SUNY Cobleskill when the storms hit her hometown and college campus.

“I lost just about everything,” said Burke. “I lost my car that was going to get me to school and my entire apartment and its contents were flooded.”

Burke found herself dealing with not only the physical effects of the storm, such as the difficult clean-up, but the lasting mental effects of the storm as well. “All of my keepsakes and things I loved, from books and photos, to clothes were ruined.”

Burke, who has since graduated from SUNY Cobleskill, is pursuing a master’s degree in psychology and attributes this experience to helping her find her career path.

“I knew I always wanted to do something that would help people, but this experience certainly changed me. Talking about how we’re taught empathy from a young age, I remember all the lessons and why you should always want to help your neighbor, but to go through what I did and see how my community helped me out is something I’ll never forget,” recalls Burke.

The Schoharie community and beyond came together to help Burke and those hit hardest by the storms.

“Strangers helped me with cleaning out my apartment. They helped with things like picking up the heavy fallen refrigerators and dressers, to offering rides and donating money for food, until I was able to get back on my feet.”

When Alexander thinks back to her own relief efforts and her school district’s response, she says it was really incredible to see the kids and school community band together.

In line with Dr. Borba’s T.A.L.K tactic, Alexander says two simple tips for helping cultivate empathy in children is to make connections and model your behavior.

Making connections

In the instance of the Schoharie County flooding, for everyone nearby, it wasn’t hard to make a connection to what was happening.

“For those lucky enough to not be directly affected, the devastation was still unescapable. Everywhere you went you would see the contents of homes emptied out on the streets. Children saw the broken beds and couches,” remembers Alexander.

“For those who were local, having an open dialogue about what they were seeing and what it meant for their neighbors, I’m sure put it all into perspective,” says Alexander.

As Borba suggests, the same conversations can be had when children see something like this in the news. Conservations like, ‘now this family has nowhere to sleep. How would you feel? How can we help them?’ can jumpstart empathy in action.

Model your behavior

“Even before the flooding, I have always made it a point with my own children to think about others in need, whether through donating clothes or donating to an organization that gives farm animals to third world families,” says Alexander. “I think it’s rubbing off – I see them want to give back, whether in the form of donating their own clothing or toys.”

Regarding the 2011 floods, Alexander says one of her takeaways was that her students helped out in ways that were appropriate for them.

This is important to keep in mind when having these same conversations with your children. What’s referred to a “child-sized” help is a response that’s both appropriate and feasible for children. For example, if your child sees animals in another state displaced by a natural disaster, they might want to save them all. While that’s a really nice gesture and response, as their parent you can help them hone in on their child-sized response, perhaps finding a local organization that’s already established and helping with the animal relief effort, or finding out what supplies are needed and sending them.

“When we were brainstorming what we could do at the time of the floods, students wanted to get out there and get to work, but we realized we couldn’t really help with clean-up because a lot of what was being removed and fixed was hazardous and potentially dangerous, so we rallied and did clothing, food and supply drives,” says Alexander.

“You’re teaching children to value and respect the feelings and lives of others. Child-sized help eventually grows into adults being helpful members of society; ones that hopefully help to make a difference in our world.”

Aubree Kammler is a public information specialist for the Capital Region BOCES Communications service in Albany, NY. 

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