Adversity Can Help Our Children Develop Empathy And Resilience

Adversity Isn’t Always A Bad Thing — It Can Help Our Children Develop Empathy And Resilience

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It is almost universally accepted that one of the primary jobs of a parent is to prevent their child from experiencing trauma. We love our children, shelter them, feed them, and clothe them, and built into these individual jobs is the assumption that they will be completed in a way that is free from excessive, unnecessary adversity.

We go to great lengths to avoid situations that would harm our children. This protective instinct has evolved into our makeup to the point that it sometimes manifests as over-protection, commonly known as “helicopter parenting.” Parents who step in too quickly to solve a problem for their child rather than allowing the child the growth experience of working out a solution on their own. It’s difficult to resist — I’ve been the parent who drove their kid’s homework to school. I know parents who have done their kid’s homework when their kid got overwhelmed.

It literally goes against nature to intentionally put our children in a situation that is difficult for them. It truly is something we have to fight. But the far ends of the spectrum feel obvious to avoid. Don’t abuse or neglect your children, do all you can not to expose them to addiction. Don’t fix every tiny problem that frustrates your child. Don’t save them from their own mistakes.

But what about when the solution is not so clear? What about when you have no choice but to inflict trauma even as every fiber of your parental being tells you that you are harming your child? A list of Childhood Adverse Experiences, or “ACEs,” was developed in 1998 by a group of doctors who surveyed over 13,000 adults about their childhoods and current health situations. The doctors found a direct correlation between certain adverse childhood experiences and negative health outcomes as an adult, ranging from depression to suicidality to COPD to heart disease. Abuse, neglect, abandonment, addiction in the home, a family member from the home having been incarcerated, generational trauma, are all on the list. So is divorce.

Two years ago, I was in the position of questioning whether or not to knowingly, deliberately inflict trauma upon my children. I had been married for 16 years but it had become increasingly clear that I am not heterosexual — I’m gay. Staying in the marriage was becoming both impossible for me and unfair to my then-husband.

Playful little toddler girl arms raised and trying to reach a pull up bar at the outdoor playground
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Still, for years, I hesitated to act, worrying myself sick about the trauma that a divorce would inflict upon my children. I imagined them sinking into a deep depression, acting out, their grades slipping. And those were only the short-term problems. The ACEs list warned that getting out of my marriage may literally shorten my children’s lives. Of course, our lives were steeped in privilege in other ways — my children were well-nourished, surrounded by a loving and supportive family, and fortunately no one in our family suffered from mental illness or addiction. The research on ACEs was clear that fewer ACEs meant fewer negative health outcomes. Adults with four ACEs fared far, far worse than adults with only one.

But what parent wants to deliberately inflict even one ACE on their child?

It has been about a year and a half since my ex husband and I told our children that we were getting a divorce, and here’s what I can report so far: The divorce hurt my children, and hurts them still. But they are not depressed, they have not acted out, their grades did not slip. In fact, since the divorce, my children have demonstrated the opposite of all these fears. They are even more joyful in many ways, especially in the sense that they appreciate the little things. Rather than act out, they have become even more compassionate and thoughtful. Both of my kids earned straight A’s for the first time after my divorce.

I can’t say what the long-term health outcomes for my children will be, but what is apparent so far is that my children are proving to have grown and matured in incredible ways as a result of the trauma they have suffered. They were awesome kids before, but I have witnessed in them since the divorce a blooming of empathy, a care for their fellow humans, a beautiful strength, that simply wasn’t there before. Yes, they cared about other people, but their ability to truly understand another’s suffering, because for the first time they know what suffering feels like, has been amplified. I hate that I was the cause of that suffering, and yet I am so incredibly proud of how their hearts have grown.

Trapped in the whirlpool of my instinctive parental protectiveness, prior to my divorce I was unable to understand that the research on ACEs is not meant to be a tool to inflict fear and panic among parents. It’s meant to be a tool for awareness — a method by which to determine what interventions may be needed to prevent the negative outcomes from traumas experienced in childhood. When ACEs are identified, interventions can be put in place that encourage posttraumatic growth. Trauma doesn’t always lead to negative outcomes. When treated properly, trauma can lead to strength, self-awareness, empathy, compassion, and resilience.

Studies have shown that adults who have experienced traumatic experiences, though prone to certain health problems like depression or addiction, demonstrate higher levels of empathy and interpersonal communication. For many, including myself, being a trauma survivor is not always a story of victimhood. It is a story of triumph, of overcoming, of powerful perspective.

My children experienced a divorce, which was traumatic for them. Do I wish I could have prevented that adversity? Honestly, yes, I still wish I could reverse the hurt. I’m still a parent, and my instinct is still to protect. And yet, I can’t deny that my children have experienced incredible personal growth in the time since my divorce. They have obliterated all my worst-case-scenario fears. I thought I was going to damage my children beyond repair, and instead, I’ve watched them grow into some of the most empathetic, resilient humans I’ve ever had the pleasure to know.