empathyMy daughter, like most fourteen-year-old girls, is obsessed with friends. In my daughter’s case, she’s desperate to HAVE some friends, since the friends she manages to make, she also manages to alienate.

Last week in English class she and a partner were directed to interview each other to get to know each other better. My daughter asked her partner things a typical 9th-grade girl would ask: “What’s your favorite book?” “Do you have any brothers or sisters?”

When it was my daughter’s turn to be interviewed, she managed to get her partner to ask her, “What’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to you?” And then my daughter proceeded to tell the heavy, sad story of being taken away from her birth parents. Way too much information on a sunny Tuesday morning when you’re just getting to know someone.

This all came up when my daughter started crying at horse therapy later that day. She said she was crying because she had been talking about her birth parents at school.  When I asked her what had made her talk about them at school, the whole story came out.

My daughter admitted that she likes getting attention for the story. She likes people feeling sorry for her, and it makes her feel special to have such a sad story. I reminded her that this was what her therapist said was pushing her friends away; that Kaelyn needs to deal with her own sad feelings instead of pushing them onto other people, because this turns people off.

So the next day at therapy, the counselor started teaching Kaylyn about empathy– caring more about other people’s feelings than she does about her own. She gave her the homework of paying attention to what is important to her friends this week, whether it’s their birthday or if something good is happening in their life. I was skeptical that Kaylyn, knowing her as I do, could accomplish this, so I added, “You really have to mean it when you’re showing interest in your friends. You can’t just pretend to be interested so they’ll like you.”

And then a funny thing happened. Therapy stirred up “mad” feelings for Kaylyn, she broke the rules, lied about it and had a temper tantrum. I didn’t handle it very well and had to apologize to her the next day. I really did feel awful about getting so mad at her and even though I tried hard not to, I started crying when I was apologizing to my daughter. When she spontaneously reached out and put her hand on my hand, I was so startled that I laughed, because if that’s not empathy, I don’t know what is.

Just when I’m ready to be discouraged and lower my expectations, my daughter shows me a flash of real empathy. And the even funnier thing is, we are closer since that happened. We seem to be enjoying each other more and feeling more comfortable with each other. Hope is rearing its perpetually optimistic head again.

Photo credit: http://www.sxc.hu/avolore