Accept Their Lack of Empathy - Just For Now
At some time in your training you have been in a discussion about morality and how it can be threatened by reality. The exercise is more likely than not about the run-a-way trolley car where you have to make a decision, do you let five individuals die or will you act by pulling a switch that changes the lane but by doing this you deliberately kill one person to save the five?
The most common response reflects a utilitarian view of the world. The loss of one life is better than that of five but is that a moral stance, are you interfering with destiny? Does being faced with such a choice involve a moral obligation?
The recent movie ‘The Eye in the Sky’ is a Hollywood version of this dilemma; do we kill a few for the sake of the many? How you answer might well be prompted by how attached you are emotionally to the participants.
The stark confrontation of this conflict was brought home in the movie Sophie’s Choice where a mother was forced to choose one child to live or both would die. This is an impossible dilemma.
The exercise not only makes us think about the difficulty of living a moral existence it also shines a light on the participant’s compassion and empathy.
Scientists have made interesting findings while studying how the brain responds to these moral judgments. Neuroscientists have highlighted the role of the prefrontal cortex and area of the brain that deals with generating social emotions. It is the emotional function of the dilemma that makes us agonize over choice when the situation is personalized. This is the power of the choice Sophie had to make.
These findings have been confirmed through replication and further study including considering the influence of elevated stress and different types of brain damage. In fact, the people with damage in this region due to stroke or other causes experienced severely diminished empathy, compassion and sense of guilt.
So what is the relevance of this information in informing practice for dealing with kids who have been abused or severely neglected? A major consequence of the early childhood abuse/neglect is the real damage to the brain in particular the prefrontal lobes. These are reduced in size by up to 20% and the neural density is significantly reduced. These children are for all intents and purposes brain damaged.
When undertaking the task of dealing with these children many teachers try to evoke some sense of shame for behaviours they have done that hurts others. This may well be an appropriate approach when dealing with healthy kids but for these kids (along with those on the Asperger’s spectrum) it has little impact. Judgments made are driven by the utilitarian approach but because they have no emotional attachment to others the so-called utilitarian approach is self-centered. They are only concerned about how they fair.
The easy answer is this apparent selfish approach is malicious and they in turn deserve no compassion from you the teacher. But this would be wrong; this is one of the things that makes dealing with these very difficult kids so hard. It’s not their fault they were made this way by their abusers when they were infants. They need even more compassion.
So what to do? The first thing to do when dealing with these kids is to put in place a very structured environment that has a clear relationship between the child’s actions and the consequences that follow. Because they are so egocentric they will soon learn to act in a way that is best for them. Your structure needs to provide for this close link. And the consequences are not only negative but just as importantly positive outcomes for functional behaviour.
Behind all your work is the principle of parenting the child in a way that will allow them to develop a new set of psychological traits and so given time with structure along with positive relationships and expectation they can develop compassion and empathy and the satisfaction it will bring to their life. Your work in this field is so important!