Tragic Violence and Empathy

Dear Kids,

I hear so much about school shootings and about suicides in teenagers that it’s hard for my heart not to hurt and for me not to feel afraid for this world that you are growing up in, where children feel that life revolves around violence. Some people explode inwards and some people explode outwards, and either way the result is horrible.

Every time it happens I hear all the parents around me chattering about “how can we protect our children from this?” as though the threat comes from the outside, as though the children that go on to do these things could never be one of ours. I don’t hear parents asking themselves “how can we make sure our children never do this?”  We seldom hear anything outside of the same old pat answers about why kids go on to do these things. “Video games”, “guns”, “black leather trench coats”, “bullying”.

Of course I ask myself how I can keep you safe. But I also ask how I can keep you safe from becoming someone so sad, so angry, so frustrated, so explosive, so isolated, so.. any of those things, that you could put yourself and others at risk? Every one of these people who have gone on to kill others.. They’ve been a child at one point. They’ve been small. They’ve been fed and nurtured by someone. They’ve grown from infancy through toddlerhood, into children, they’ve passed through classes in school, and they’ve emerged on the other side desperate and unhappy and vengeful and scared and destructive and not caring about the lives of others or of themselves.

As I read to you at night, I look at the pages of the books and at the characters in the books and I ask you how you think the characters feel. Do they look happy? Do they look sad? Do they look angry? What do you think the character wants right now? What do you think the character needs?

When you hit each other or when you hurt each other I do not scold you, I try to come stand beside you and I say “Look at him. Look at how he is crying. When you cry that way, how do you feel inside?” And I hold your hurt sibling and you both close.

I know that you were angry when he took your toy.
I know that you were hurt when she hit you.
I know that you were hurt when he wouldn’t share.
I know that you are hurting now as you listen to each other cry.
I know that you are hurting for yourself.
I also know that you are hurting for your brother/sister because you love them too.
I know that you had a lot of anger inside of you.
I know that each of you is small right now and you’re still learning.

What can you do different next time?

I explore different things with you. We breathe together. Both deep breaths, and short ones. We hum. We punch punching bags. We stomp our feet. You hit my hands with balled up angry fists and you hit the punching bag and we talk about those things that you feel so very deeply that they just need to come out. We shake up akla seltzer tablets in old 35 millimeter film canisters and stand back while they pop open and shoot themselves into the air. We poke holes in the lids to see how many holes there need to be for it all to come out slowly. We talk about letting our feelings out and keeping them in. We talk about safe things and dangerous things. We smash ice cubes with rubber mallets and then we try to put them back together. One bang! Big pieces. Two bangs! Smaller pieces. Five bangs! It’s ice dust quickly melting on the hot summer pavement. We grow plants, we tend to them, we pull up weeds. We learn together about creation and destruction. About nurturing and neglect. We talk about how we feel when we eat certain foods, about how we feel when we watch too much TV, about how we feel after we’ve just played at the playground or chased each other around. About how the different parts of our lives flow together across the day.

When you are angry and yelling at me, I ask if you’re angry. I ask how you want to let the anger out. I ask you about the consequences of different ways of letting the anger out.

Sometimes your anger bubbles up and out in threats where you tell me that you want to hit me or hurt me and you tell me how very angry you are and how you want to do something terrible or how you want me to go away and never come back.

I ask you simply and calmly “What do you think would happen if you did that?” “How do you think I would feel? How do you think you would feel?”  Do you maybe mean that you’re really really really upset because you can’t have what you want, and you just want to tell me how upset you are?”

Often your eyes suddenly come back into focus on the world outside of your hurt and your anger, and you look into my eyes, all those hard and hurting emotions spent out.

“I feel like I want to tell you that I hate you. But I don’t really hate you. I just hate that you won’t let me have ice cream right now because I really really want it so bad that I feel like maybe I hate you. I just really want ice cream.”

And I tell you that I understand because a long time ago back I was small too, and when you’re small everything feels soooo big. And that even as you grow things will feel so big and so huge. That when something feels really really big I’ll talk to your dad or I’ll talk to Gramma and they’ll help me see how small it really is, or they’ll help me remember to let the feelings out.

What I don’t do is this: I won’t get angry at your anger. I won’t get angry at your upset. I won’t get angry at your desire to change those things that will not be changed. I will not send you off alone to deal with those hardest of emotions all alone. I won’t send you into time out or tell you that you should be ashamed of your tears. I won’t accuse you of manipulating me when you share your feelings.

I’ll sit there in the room with you while you process the things that you need to process. I’ll keep it about you without making it about me.

Not because I think that this will keep you safe from all of the people out there that are hurting or that are mentally ill.

But because I want to teach you that you never need to explode that way. You do not need to explode into yourself. You do not need to explode out of yourself. All of those Really Really Big Things You Feel Inside have reasons and meaning and we can talk about them and get them all out, and if they’re ever too big for you and I to handle, I will help you find the help that you need.

I will focus on you right now as each of you grow.

I can teach you how to let stress and anger out. I can teach you to seek help if you are ever overwhelmed. I can teach you to let go and breathe deep. I can teach you empathy. I can repeat it often enough that I hope you will always remember: You can talk to me. About anything. I will listen.

When you talk to me about the bully in kindergarten, I will listen. When you talk to me about the music teacher you have a crush on, I will listen. When you talk to me about how anger or sadness make you feel, I will listen.  I will listen when you are two and a half and tell me that you want to hit me. I will listen when you are six and tell me your sad and angry or fearful things. I will listen when you are fourteen, sixteen, twenty, thirty..

I will do this not because I view you as a ticking time bomb, but because I see you as a child young and eager to learn. Because I see you as someone struggling to control your strong childhood emotions. Because I see the progress each of you makes as you move through the different stages of your life.

I don’t believe it’s enough to leave every child to their own devices to navigate their emotions and hope that they’ll come out with a healthy understanding of the things that they feel. I see your childhood as the time to teach you how to cope with the strength of your feelings, how to speak and be listened to, how to seek out resources and how to solve problems. I don’t believe it’s wise to wait until the child hits their teens before we talk about difficult emotions. I don’t think that it’s fair to tell you as a child to tantrum somewhere else alone, then ask you as a teenager to talk to me.

These beliefs do not come from wanting to make sure you never grow up to be a dangerous person, they come from wanting to make sure you grow up a happy and resilient one.

<3 Mama

** This post is about my personal experience with the children that I have. There are many children that suffer from mental illness which cannot be kissed or hugged away. These kids need help from the outside.

6 thoughts on “Tragic Violence and Empathy

  1. “I don’t think that it’s fair to tell you as a child to tantrum somewhere else alone, then ask you as a teenager to talk to me.”
    This line really sums alot of things up that I see. I love your thoughts and ideas about bottling and learning about emotions. Thanks

  2. Thank you for this! I remember very few people actually listening to me as a child – and my greatest desire when I have children is to be there and listen to them. That’s something I didn’t have and wanted so badly.

    I hope you don’t mind – I linked this post back on my blog. If you’d rather I didn’t, then I will remove the link.

    Thank you again!

  3. At the risk of sounding dramatic, this post has changed my life for the better. I have had it taped to my bathroom wall (a trick I learned as an RA in college) so I would read it frequently. So many times we find something great, bookmark it, and forget it. I always try to operate similarly to this, but you spelled out the process so clearly and lovingly that it was the missing piece.

    Tonight, when I admonished my niece for aggressively hugging the dog, she called me “stupid.” It is her favorite way of saying “I didn’t know I was doing something wrong and now I am embarrassed and want to act out.” I said, “Oh, do you think you might really just be mad at me because I didn’t want you to hurt the dog?” I gave her some space, and five minutes later, with no prompting, she walked up to me and said, “I’m sorry I called you stupid.” I said, “I’m sorry I made you feel bad. Can we talk about how we treat the dog?”

    Victory. Peaceful, miraculous, beautiful victory.

    1. Sarah,

      I love peaceful victories where you see the effects of real communication, and where kids learn that it is okay to be wrong, apologize, make things better, and when they don’t shut down after “don’t” without gaining an understanding of “why not”.

      Thank you for taking the time to share your story with me, and to let me know that one of my writings was meaningful to you. <3

      -Sarah

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