The Birth of Teen Empathy

Written by  Susan Pohlman

The birth of empathy between siblings is a beautiful thing to witness.  One of the many unexpected joys of living abroad is watching the way such a powerful experience changes your children.  For the better.  Kids who travel together, learn to rely on each other in a deeper way than life in suburban America demands.

When we left for Italy, Katie and Matt were fifteen and eleven.  At that time they were attending different schools, played different sports, had different sets of friends, and had developed different interests. Though they lived in the same house and were forced, cruelly, to share a bathroom, they relied on us to take care of their every need.  Isn’t that what good parents do? Attend to your child’s every need and develop his/her uniqueness as an individual?

When we landed on foreign soil with only clothing, a few photos, and a Scrabble game, all of this uniqueness went by the wayside.  We did not have the money, language skills, or general wherewithal to attend to anything but the basics: food, shelter, a need to belong.  The four of us turned toward each other, emotionally, to seek safety, reassurance, and camaraderie. We were all we had. And we found out that we were all we needed.

Now, I am not going to say that settling into a new culture was smooth. We all had our share of anxiety and dark moments, but, like any transition, we worked through them and adjusted to a new way of life.  A way that did not involve convenience.  One that demanded guts, developed courage and taught our children that life is more meaningful when you travel it together.

Looking back, I see that year as the one where Katie and Matt joined each other’s journeys in a powerful way. They found themselves in a most peculiar situation with only each other to sort it out.  They stopped the eye rolls and snide remarks that used to define their relationship and started supporting each other, as they both knew how hard it was and how deeply it hurt, sometimes, to wake up, on a regular Tuesday, in a foreign land and realize this was not some horrible dream.

They decided, together, to move forward and embrace the adventure that would introduce them to the breadth of our great world, the transformative power of wonder, and provide enough inside jokes to connect them for the rest of their lives. They became a winning team.

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