Our hearts ache when we hear about children being hurt. A social worker with over thirty years of experience working for her county’s Child Protective Services agency put it well:
After all of these years, it still hits me in the gut. I mean the things these kids go through. I still find myself thinking, “This sort of stuff just can’t happen…it can’t be real.” No child should have to go through these things.
Because we care, we hate the pain they have experienced and yearn to help them heal. This motivation is wonderful. That is, as long as we also recognize that feeling sorry for kids isn’t the same thing as loving them and empowering them to heal.
“Feeling sorry for” someone can lead us toward unintentionally sending the unstated message:
“This is so horrible that you’ll never be able to cope and find joy in your life.”
“Loving” someone means purposefully sending a very different unstated message:
“I can’t imagine how much this must hurt. I’m so sorry this happened to you. I’m here for you. I believe in you.”
Consider these questions:
• Which style, sympathy or empathy, is the most likely to result in the adult eventually feeling burnt out and even resentful toward the child?
• Which style is more likely to result in the child feeling manipulated?
• Which style is about the adult’s feelings? Which is about the child’s needs?
• Do these concepts also apply to kids who haven’t experienced trauma?
Dr. Charles Fay