The incredible, amazing brain in kids of divorce. Part 2: Applying empathy



What if you could give a child of divorce a magical moment? Many of us look for something good we can do for these children. We understand how stressful living in two homes can be. We understand the chaos these children live in. What if I told you there was a way—a very easy way—for you to make magical moments for the children in your class?

Magical moments become possible by engaging the gift of empathy. Empathy is

  • Feeling what someone else is feeling
  • Placing oneself in a situation a child or another person is experiencing
  • Looking at a situation from another person’s perspective
  • Sharing feelings

To feel with another is to care” (Daniel Goleman, “Emotional Intelligence,” p. 105). Just knowing someone truly cares helps children of divorce. Empathy allows children to connect with you in a personal way, and that is magic to them.

The topic of empathy is an exciting one to me because as I read and understand the Bible, I see that Jesus brought empathy into the world at full force. Christians can imitate Christ’s empathy in our world today. From brain research, we are learning about the importance of empathy to the learning brain. “The more a child receives empathy the more ‘whole,’ they become, and the more efficient is their brain organization” (Dr. Becky Bailey, Conscious Discipline).

Sympathy versus empathy

Many people have sympathy for the child of divorce, but children of divorce don’t need your sympathy or your pity. Sympathy is feeling or expressing pity and sorrow for a distress or pain someone is experiencing. For example, upon learning of the death of our friend’s loved one, we might say to our friend, “I’m sorry for your loss.” We have sorrow for our friend.

Many adult children of divorce will tell you they didn’t like it when people felt sorry for them or pitied them. Many times, it drove them deeper into themselves, and they refused to share, explore their feelings, or open up.

Understanding the child of divorce

When children of divorce (and other crises or trauma situations) come into your church classes, they want you to understand what they are feeling. You might say they want to transfer to you their:

  • Hurting heart
  • Sadness
  • Sense of depression
  • Loneliness
  • Fear
  • Anger

The key to perceiving children’s feelings is the ability to read nonverbal clues, such as “tone of voice, facial expressions, gestures and body language” (Goleman, p. 96). This tells children of divorce that you care enough to notice and connect with them.

The decline of empathy

Today, we are experiencing a lack of empathy in our world. Research shows that empathy is declining among children. Tim Elmore tells us that “as screen time goes up, empathy goes down.” He explains that when kids spend hours on screen time, they may have intellectual understanding, but they can’t connect with the pain others feel.

This tells me that we now have hurting children who have friends who don’t understand or don’t want to try to understand their pain. As a matter of fact, many of these kids who lack empathy are the bullies who taunt the children of divorce. To those children, it seems that no one cares. In reality, they might be right that everyone is tuning them out.

Let me share with you a personal experience I had at the elementary school where I volunteer after school with the chorus.

The new semester brought new children into the chorus. One obviously distressed little girl approached me. Her face was red, she was wringing her hands, tears were forming in the corners of her eyes, and her shoulders were hunched over. The first thing I did was to make a quick observation of everything physical going on with her. The next thing was to place my hand on her shoulder and lean into her.

Then, I asked softly, “What seems to be the problem?” She explained that her mom told her not to come to chorus that day. She had forgotten, and now she didn’t know how she was going to get home. I placed myself in her little eight-year-old body and immediately thought how I would feel if I were she. I said, “Let’s go to the office and see if we can call your mom.” We talked all the way to the office. I kept a smile on my face (think mirror neurons) and talked in a low, quiet, caring voice.

In other words, I had empathy for the girl. Eventually, we found out her mom was indeed supposed to come to choir but had somehow mistakenly scrambled her day’s schedule. Knowing this, the little girl was then able to sing her heart out like the other kids.

Many of us would have approached this girl with a quick fix and said something like, “Oh, come on now. You’ll be okay. Your mom will find you. Don’t worry. Now go back to your seat, and sing with us.” Or we might try to “happy up” the child and make her laugh or smile.

Empathy in the New Testament

Reading the New Testament, I can visualize how Jesus had empathy for many people.

  • For the little children, He pulled them into His lap.
  • He felt the hunger of the crowd and fed them.
  • He drove out demons.
  • He healed those with leprosy.
  • He cried with Mary and Martha when their brother Lazarus died.
  • On and on, He cared for the people as “He took up our infirmities and carried our diseases” (Matt 8:17b, NIV).

Realize that for some kids of divorce, you might be the only empathetic Jesus voice they hear this week. And that empathetic voice has the ability to create magical moments for these children.

  • Magical moments are moments when the child recognizes that someone cares.
  • Magical moments mean times of connecting to another person.
  • Magical moments say, “I’m not in this alone.”
  • Magical moments build relationships with Christ-like people.
  • Magical moments mean “I can let my guard down and enjoy myself in a safe place.”
  • Magical moments mean I can find joy in this place.
  • Magical moments mean God, the heavenly Father, loves ME.

If you were a child of divorce, what would a magical moment look like to you?

This article is updated and adapted from an article originally published on the Kids & Divorce blog on May 14, 2014.

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3 thoughts on “The incredible, amazing brain in kids of divorce. Part 2: Applying empathy

  1. Pingback: DC4K » The incredible, amazing brain in kids of divorce Part 7: The heart and head

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