Empathy – Perhaps The Greatest Human Regulator
January 30, 2019

On Thursday, January 24, 2019, Dr. Bruce Perry and Dr. J. Stuart Ablon spoke to AISD staff, students, and partnering organizations about their current research and work on The Collaborative Problem Solving Approach, a model that has shown great “effectiveness with children and adolescents with a wide range of social, emotional, and behavioral challenges.” Dr. Perry and Dr. Ablon described situations in which a child’s emotional state is dysregulated. Dysregulation is described by Dr. Fabiana Franco, Clinical Professor of Psychology at the George Washington University, “as the inability to manage the intensity and duration of negative emotions such as fear, sadness, or anger.”

Students who have experienced trauma might be dysregulated by a trigger related to their trauma and respond in a way that appears unfitting for the situation. For example, a child who witnessed the incarceration of their parent might be triggered by the police officer patrolling their school cafeteria, and display hostility or anxiety during lunch. To anyone else in the cafeteria, this hostility or anxiety might seem to come out of nowhere or to lack valid reason. The child themself might not be completely aware when or where the feeling of anger or fear first originated. Often the response to any display of hostility or anger is met with discipline. Dr. Ablon’s suggests approaching this sort of situation from a place of empathy. When discussing research about the brain, trauma, and a history of school discipline tactics, empathy was one of the things he spoke about the most. He describes empathy as “perhaps the greatest human regulator”. 

Renée Spencer, Associate Dean for Research & Professor at Boston University’s School of Social Work, defines empathy as, “(a) an emotional response to the experiences of others, (b) a capacity for taking the other person’s perspective,” and (c) taking action in a way that the other person can sense that their perspective and feelings are seen and valued. Spencer describes new research showing that a therapist’s treatment is less successful if the therapist lacks empathy. In fact, when therapists lacked empathy, clients got worse instead of better.

The biggest implication for mentoring is this: empathy might be the most important healing practice during a weekly visit. A mentor might wonder, how much real difference can be made in a half hour visit? Dr.Perry described that children are sometimes triggered by a memory, a loud noise, or someone that reminds them of a loved one they miss, and in that dysregulated state, they have to go from one thing to the next in their day. They ride the bus and have to try to stay calm in the face of social peer interactions. They continue to navigate through quizzes and assignments all the while not having had a moment to find their emotional baseline. Enter their lunch time mentor. Their mentor listens, empathizes, validates. The child feels seen, heard, and finds a safe place where there is no judgment or criticism. Empathy fuels not only emotional regulation but real connection between mentor and mentee.


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