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Empathy Promotes Emotional Resiliency

Survival of the fittest is out and caring is in.

In the last five years, I have been witness to a movement led by psychologists and mental health clinicians, spreading a message that main stream child rearing practices unintentionally create children who are psychologically fragile. A favorite theme for this movement has been, "We are creating a nation of wimps." This movement has been born primarily in response to the idea of anti bullying rules and laws being passed to prevent students saying hurtful remarks to their peers.

While I have agreed with the psychological fragility most youths in today's culture struggle with, I do not believe the problem lies with a lack of psychological toughness in today's youth. Rather I believe the problem lies with a fundamental lack of understanding and practice of conscientiousness and empathy.

There is strength in caring, past one's own needs and wants. Children and teenagers, who understand and practice the concept of being empathetic, do a lot better in communicating with their peers. They experience significantly less conflicts with their peers, even with would be bullies. So why is this?

In an article by Maia Szalavitz, titled kindness 101, she writes about a Canadian program called Roots of Empathy for third and fourth graders. The program is actually one of a number of experimental bully prevention/anti bulling programs in North America that uses the teaching of empathy to reduce bullying. The article goes on the address that while human nature has historically being characterized as being innately selfish, researchers in the field of social neuroscience in recent years have discovered evidence that suggests the human brain is innately wired to be empathetic.

Survival of the fittest is out and caring is in.

The idea of human beings hard wired to be empathetic makes a lot of sense, especially when I consider my professional experience. Consider this, as part of my therapeutic approach; I always begin my treatment plan with an adolescent or child client with the one-two approach of understanding the use of feeling words and teaching the concept of empathy. To date, every adolescent client of mine who has bought into this therapeutic approach, have experienced the unintended but welcome side effect of improving their academic grades. In every exit interview with these clients, they would report experiencing a desire to become more curious about others and the world around them, a departure from their previous sense of being self-centered and entitlement. One former client even referenced a Jimi Hendrick's quote, "I used to live in a room full of mirrors; all I could see was me. I take my spirit and I crash my mirrors, now the whole world is here for me to see."

Empathy is strength, and an asset towards surviving and thriving in any environment. It promotes genuine curiosity about others, which facilitates a desire to teach and learn. It allows a would be bully the opportunity to gain insight into how his behaviors would affect others negatively- in regards to both the potential victim and witnesses and it also affords the would be bully the ability to enlist the help of his peers in getting his needs met in healthier ways. With empathy, a potential bully victim wouldn't be a victim of bullying. Because such a person would be able to assertively address a situation where his or her boundary had been crossed and take measures to ensure his or her rights are respected. With empathy such a person while addressing the situation, without missing a beat would regard and treat the potential bully as a fellow human being.
Techniques towards addressing conflicts with others, are usually very effective, however they only work if the person using the techniques is genuinely empathetic.

So how does this all tie in the concept of psychological fragility? Children and adolescents who understand and practice the concept of empathy don't personalize setbacks. They readily accept when things are not going their way and they are cognizant that there are always other perceptions, different from theirs.