An old friend was in touch this week to tell me that his mother had died. I was saddened. She had been kind to me when he and I were children. Much more powerfully, I was drawn towards him by his experience of loss, feeling his vulnerability. I was moved to support him, instinctively. My own experiences of loss could be used in service to him. My understanding was required. His needs became my priority.
I was delighted to attend the Roots of Empathy annual conference earlier in the week, where the organisation celebrated 25 years of delivering their programme. Their intervention rests on the understanding that it is a common human response to prioritise the needs of someone more vulnerable than ourselves.
Of course, we don’t all always do this. (Just imagine for a moment if we did).
But Roots of Empathy capture and utilise this insight to teach empathy to young school children all over the world, knowing that some of those children will have had a far from ideal experience of nurturing parental care themselves. Those children are vulnerable: they can learn empathy by interacting with someone even more vulnerable. And who is more vulnerable than a baby?
So each week, facilitators bring a mother and baby into school so children can experience over time the developing relationship and themselves develop their reflective capacity, their sensitivity, their empathy.
This same response to vulnerability is one of the crucial elements that powers Family Group, our own school-based multi-family therapy intervention.
Once safety is established in the group, children venture into the space, gradually opening up as they find the confidentially and trust holds from week to week.
As they reveal more of themselves, pre-conceptions and misunderstandings melt away. They experience support, encouragement, nurturing understanding. Their courage and honesty are acknowledged.
They feel the respect from other children and parents in the room as they take steps to untangle patterns of interaction or understanding that cause them or others distress. Their parent or carer is right there, to support, to witness and to learn.
For it is within our closest relationships that some of those tangles are rooted.
In parent time, once the children have gone back into class, the therapist and school-based partner bring the focus back to analysing what the group has just done together.
Now it is the turn of the adults to touch on their vulnerabilities and to receive that same empathic response they’ve offered the children.
Conversations can go way back into the childhood experience of the parent as the group gently untangle some of the transgenerational baggage evident in the parent-child relationship.
Just like Roots of Empathy, the programme is experiential: you get it cognitively but also emotionally. You feel it. And you feel others feeling it.
Bruce Perry commented on this at the Roots of Empathy Symposium earlier this week, a celebration of 25 years of the programme.
Since his seminal 1995 paper “Childhood trauma, the neurobiology of adaptation, and “use-dependent” development of the brain: How “states” become “traits” that phrase, the USE DEPENDENT DEVELOPMENT OF THE BRAIN, has informed my whole approach as a psychotherapist and social entrepreneur.
It’s one of the key assumptions on which Family Group is based: you have to HAVE the experience.
And achieving prolonged, nurturing, ‘good enough’, real-time experience may require an adjustment in the relational patterns Family Group children are caught within. Understanding and changing those patterns takes time. That’s why it typically takes a primary school child 15 months to graduate from Family Group.
If you’re interested to know more about Roots of Empathy but missed the symposium it’s worth going to the post-event site where you can access some of the Café events which were recorded.
If you’re interested to know more about Family Group well, get in touch and let’s have a chat!
This blog is written by Mark Griffiths, CEO of The School & Family Works. To get in touch with Mark, please email firstname.lastname@example.org
School & Family Works is the trading name of Transgenerational Change Limited, a social enterprise whose purpose is evident in the name. Through Family Group, our aim is to enable change for children from families where the status quo sets the child at school on a trajectory towards poor outcomes. Through creating a true collaboration with parents and school we generate insight into the presenting situation so that a new understanding arises and new possibilities open.