Unsentimental compassion: Our gift to our children, our need throughout life

In her KCA blog on 7 February, Sally Poskett commented that

“… we are blessed with a workforce of people driven by authentic, unsentimental compassion who are willing, in the face of increased levels of toxic stress in our communities, to work doggedly to bring about transformation.”

Since Sally wrote this, toxic stress has certainly not reduced in our communities, and I share her sense of awe and gratitude towards the people who continue to provide services to children and families facing all the challenges of life in the UK in the twenty-first century: people who day by day expose themselves to the ravages of toxic stress, knowing that their own capacity to absorb and transform this toxicity will protect vulnerable children and families from future harm and promote recovery from past harm.

What is toxic stress in the community?

Let us take a scenario. Here is a 13-year-old child who lives at home with a younger brother who is at primary school, a two-year-old sister, a mother who works in a nursery (also attended by the two-year-old), and a stepfather who drives a lorry. They live in a rented two-bedroom flat, and they have been given notice to leave as the landlord is selling up. At the same time the owners of the nursery have lost some sources of funding and are recognising that their business may be hitting insolvency.

The 13-year-old attends a local comprehensive school which has recently become an academy, with substantial changes in the senior leadership team. The school has instituted a new behaviour policy in line with recent Government guidance on behaviour and discipline. Staff are struggling to adjust to these changes, and there has been a rise in staff absence for sickness and also a rise in turnover of staff at all levels.

Everyone in this scenario is in a state of stress. It may seem exaggerated, yet the chances are high that the equivalent or worse is happening in a community near you.

When we are able to regulate stress it does us no harm, and can be a source of energy and motivation. But when stress is at a level we cannot regulate, it becomes toxic. Toxic stress puts our brains and nervous systems into survival mode. Reactions speed up and we lose the ability to self-regulate, to stop and think before we act, to share our thoughts and feelings with others or to care for their well-being. Toxic stress leads to chaos in the community, as Bessel van der Kolk, Alexander McFarlane and Lars Weisaeth noted as long ago as 1996 in their ground-breaking book ‘Traumatic Stress: the effects of overwhelming experience on mind, body and society’.

What is unsentimental compassion?

Neuroscience in recent years has been adding astonishing dimensions to our understanding of the importance of human connectedness, with authors such as Louis Cozolino and Daniel Siegel making the research accessible for us to apply to our own communities and work settings. They make it clear that being able to connect to other mature humans is a fundamental need for developing and maintaining healthy brain function. In this context we suggest, following and expanding on the work of John Gottman on Emotion Coaching, that compassion and reason can be seen as the key attributes of a mature human.

Developmentally, compassion begins with our innate physical capacity to attune to others, mirroring the stressed state of their nervous system. Then we develop the ability to process and make sense of this incoming information so that it is clear to us that the stress originates in the other person and not in us, and we begin to have empathy. And finally as we continue towards maturity we develop the capacity to set all this attunement and empathy in the context of a caring relationship, and we experience compassion.

The other axis of the power of relationship is reason. This begins as we acquire from other mature and compassionate individuals the ability to self-regulate when our nervous system is affected by stress. This settling of the nervous system enables us to think about what is happening. Then we develop the ability to communicate about these experiences, so that we, having been helped and guided by mature people are in turn able to help and guide others. And finally we develop mature reasoning capacity in which we can set such experiences into a wider context of meaning and purpose.

It is only when we can exercise both high compassion and high rationality that we can safeguard our children and young people and make decisions that protect and do no harm.

What happens to compassion and reason when stress is at toxic levels?

Toxic stress is biologically linked to intense fear, and fear disturbs our balance, destroying the capacity for unsentimental compassion. Relationships, the core of healthy development and function, then change.

Sometimes we lose the ability to self-regulate when attuned with the stressed person. Then our capacity to reason is disrupted although we still experience compassion. This compassionate unreason manifests itself as sentimentality at best and as panic or paralysis at worst. So, for example, our stressed 13-year-old reacts to being corrected by losing control and the stressed teacher panics. Instead of being able to connect to the child and enable them to calm down, the frightened teacher summons help, setting in motion a potentially unstoppable train of events.

Or toxic stress may destroy both the capacity for compassion and for reason, and the cold unreason that results is evident all around us wherever people show disconnection from others and unpredictably changeable responses based solely on self-interest and survival. This disconnection can be seen in services for children in which the adults feel vulnerable and afraid. It can be seen in policy-makers and leaders who produce reports and guidance based on narratives of fear. The help the teacher summons will be guided by a behaviour policy that may have no link with the needs of children for connection and co-regulation.

And finally, toxic stress and the intense fear it produces can destroy compassion while leaving people with the capacity for survival-based thinking and cold calculation. Again this cold reason is all too obvious in the world around us, resulting in services that resort to coercion and oppression in the name of order and safety, and leadership and guidance that can seem to imply that children and young people are the enemy to be subdued rather than our own vulnerable young. Our 13-year-old may find themselves increasingly adrift in such a coercive environment, and what began as behaviour showing the need for caring co-regulation becomes a young person excluded from school.

Unsentimental compassion and community resilience

If we are to support and maintain the health and well-being of our children and young people, then it is clear we must support the health and well-being of those who live and work with them. If our children are to receive the gift they need of unsentimental compassion from the adults around them, then those adults must in turn recognise themselves, and be recognised by all of us, as having the same need for unsentimental compassion.

The challenge, then, is to widen our own capacity for compassion and reason. Can we find compassion not only for the vulnerable child who has just been excluded from school, but also for the harassed teacher who disconnected from them, panicked and summoned help? Can we find compassion not only for the teacher, but also for the overwhelmed senior leaders who have disconnected from the child and from the teacher and from the parents, and produced and implemented a behaviour policy that excludes the most vulnerable? Can we find compassion for the parents whose own toxic stress has had such an impact on the ability of their child to self-regulate and manage the social demands of school? And finally, can we use our reasoning power to make sense of this whole story in a way that might reduce the overall burden of toxic stress and lead to a better outcome for everyone?

Resilient communities enable adults to maintain the delicate balance between compassion and reason that lies at the heart of well-being and health for our children and young people. We all have a part to play in promoting and sustaining this community resilience.