Monday, August 15, 2011

How to Forgive a Shark

When six year old Lucy Magnum was recently bitten by a shark as she boogie-boarded in the shallow waters off the North Carolina coast, she was understandably upset. Thanks to her parents, who acted quickly to get her out of the water and applied pressure to the wound, Doctor's were able to save her leg.

Recovering from her wounds in the hospital, Lucy angrily declared: "I hate sharks. I like dolphins way better." But once her parents explained that the shark had simply made a mistake and didn't know she was a human when it bit her, her attitude changed: "I don't care that the shark bit me," she told her mother. "I forgive him."

It is an amusing story, but we grabbed on to it because it nicely illustrates an important principle of psychological healing: the manner in which you frame experiences can completely alter a child's emotional reaction to it.

People can behave like sharks sometimes in that they often make mistakes that can cause others a great deal of pain and suffering. Yet how you explain those things -- as either the product of intentional malice or the misunderstanding and imperfections of flawed humans -- will determine whether a child finds a quick psychological recovery, or stays stuck in a ruminative state of negative emotions that stays with them well into the future.

Children will suffer injustices in their lives at the hands of others. Yet when they do, parents routinely cause their child far my harm than the event they are concerned about by modeling reactions that teach them a negative, stigmatizing or destructive way of relating to that event. Remember this: while experiences are limited in nature, a child's interpretation of that experience, which is largely garnered by the attitude of adults, will endure well into the future. Whether a child continues to be bothered by a negative experience often has little to do with the event itself, and everything with how parents teach them to relate to that event.

Just like sharks, people sometime make mistakes in the way they act. And just like it feels worse to think a mean-spirited shark is out to ruin our fun at the beach by trying to eat us on purpose, it feels worse when parents react to a child's other negative experience with explanations that involve intentional malice or other stigmatizing ideas. So be very careful in how you teach children to interpret the world. You want them to live in a world where good people sometimes make mistakes, not one where sharks are out to gobble them up whole.

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