When Kids Seem Unmoved
Using guilt to teach kids compassion usually backfires, says expert Janice Cohn.
BY: Interview by Wendy Schuman
Dr. Janice Cohn, a psychotherapist, specializes in helping children deal with violence in their lives. A consultant to schools and the New Jersey Department of Education, she developed the Heroes Project, which helps kids focus on compassion and moral courage. Her books include "Raising Compassionate, Courageous Children in a Violent World" and "The Christmas Menorahs: How a Town Fought Hate." She spoke with Beliefnet family producer Wendy Schuman about why some children are showing little emotion in the wake of the terrorist attacks.
Parents understand their kids' tears, nightmares, and being afraid, but what do you do when your kid just looks at you and says, "Can I play soccer now?"
Often children seem to lack compassion. I've been giving presentations at schools and parents' places of work, and I'm hearing this more and more-"My child doesn't seem to show any emotion and seems to be very blasé." These are parents who try very hard to instill a sense of empathy and compassion in their children, and they're thinking, "What is going on?"
There's a clinical term called "omission of affect." When children are dealing with very scary things, they don't show emotion. Especially with younger kids, 6, 7, and 8, the ego gets overwhelmed with things that are scary. It's almost always temporary and usually lasts only a few weeks after an event. But just because they're acting that way now, it doesn't mean they won't react later. And we're in for a long haul in terms of our military response.
If children don't seem to show any emotion, the most important thing is not to pressure them to do this. Everybody reacts to things in their own way, even children. Some may want to talk about this constantly, some will want to donate all their toys. Others will seem completely unmoved, but they're dealing with it internally-or shutting off their feelings. So parents need to use it as a teachable moment-"I accept and understand you don't want to talk about it right now. But if you want to talk about it later and if you have any questions, I'm right here." Let the child know that you're there for them when they want to talk, not when you feel it's a good time.
A mom told me about her nine-year-old who kept whining and complaining about her homework when her mother was clearly upset about the people killed in the World Trade Center. Should parents express anger that kids are bringing up things that seem so trivial?
Children, like us, are feeling helpless. The first thing children think about is themselves-children are self-centered, and that's normal and natural. Some kids are super-empathic from the crib. Others keep it in. Others are worried about what's going to happen to them. If you're worried about yourself and your parents, it's hard to go the next step and worry about other people. Children understand things according to their development and what unresolved issues there are in their lives.