Understanding and Empathy for Traumatized Children

By Phil Kitchel posted 05-02-2022 01:48 PM


Today’s blogger is Erinn Kate Larsen, an Intervention Specialist at a middle school in Ohio. Her article with Shawn DiNarda Watters, “Adverse Childhood Experiences and Trauma-Informed Schools,” appears in the April 2022 issue of the Kappa Delta Pi Record. Get free access to the article through the month of May.

Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are important for educators to understand so that they can be more empathetic and responsive to their students’ experiences. The ACEs inventory (Felitti et al., 1998), which appears in my article in the KDP Record, identifies 10 childhood experiences that impact an individual’s development. My own ACE score, mirroring that of many traumatized students, is 4. The initial domino was the cancer diagnosis of my father when I was in eighth grade. His diagnosis, treatment, and decline led to the next domino of potential homelessness. The ACEs directly or indirectly connected to my dad’s illness include a parent being too drunk to take care of me, losing a parent through divorce/death, living with a problem drinker, and a household member who was mentally ill.

One Sunday morning, my family (father, mother, and brother Liam) attended church, which was unusual. My family returned home, and my mother announced to my brother and me, “Your dad has lung cancer.” She explained that our father had already started chemotherapy and radiation. I went to my room to cry while thinking, “I need to spend all the time in the world with my dad before he dies.” At the start of his cancer journey, he weighed 225 pounds and was muscular; toward the end of his life, he looked like a victim of Auschwitz, weighing just 90 pounds.

I watched my father’s cancer journey from eighth grade through the beginning of ninth grade. I heard that my father had 6 months to a year to live, which made the feelings more surreal that he could leave Earth, and us, at any time. My family depended on him emotionally and financially, as the sole breadwinner. I was the primary caretaker of my father while my mother attended nursing school. She knew she would need to provide for our family in the near future and was trying to make this possible.

I was responsible for medication routines, physical therapy, and feedings. He started to decline quickly, inviting Hospice to put a hospital bed in the living room (his bedroom was on the third floor). Once, when I was doing a physical therapy session, my father fell in the dining room, which traumatized me for a while. This fall signified his true decline, and it finally hit home for me: I needed to prepare myself for the inevitable. I asked my grandfather to help with the physical therapy sessions after that awful experience. My grandfather became the primary caretaker when I was attending school. One morning, my father sat up in bed, causing him to break his hip. The cancer had spread to his bones, making them brittle.

One Tuesday morning, I returned home from school ready to perform the medication routine. When my mother checked on my father, she stated, “He isn’t breathing; someone go grab my stethoscope.” She soon announced, “Dad is gone.” Liam, our mother, and I stood together crying. The moment we had been dreading was here; we were not prepared for the finality of death. Even in our extreme sadness and not knowing what the days ahead would be, we were relieved to see our father was no longer suffering.

After the death of my father, I became the main breadwinner and grew up quickly, losing part of my childhood. I continuously worked to keep my family from becoming homeless. The absolute devastation from my father’s death changed my mother. She sought alcohol to numb the emotions.

Having experienced adversity as a young child enables me to better understand my students and the stressors they feel on a daily basis. I am better able to meet them where they are, build relationships, and help them learn the curricular content. Adversity is important for children and adults to understand, so they can be more empathetic and understanding toward others. In my article in the KDP Record, you can find recommended practices for education and early intervention so you can help your students who have suffered traumatic experiences to realize a lower level of long-term negative health and behavioral effects.



05-06-2022 12:44 PM

I completely agree. Thank you for reading my personal story!

05-06-2022 09:25 AM

Children can be impacted by so many events during childhood. It is always a good idea to have empathy for all of our students because we truly don't know what they are going through/have gone through unless that is explicitly shared with us.