Lost at the Library: The Importance of Empathy for Life’s Little Traumas

An ocean of worry trickled down the little girl’s cheeks.

I stooped down to her height. “Would you like a tissue?”

She squeezed her small body together, as though willing herself not to fall apart.  


“Can’t find your daddy?” I said, digging a tissue out of my fanny pack.

“Daddy!” she cried. It came out like a small explosion.

Minutes earlier I had been waiting in line at the library check-out. From the corner of my eye, I saw a dark-haired comma of a girl make a bee-line for the corridor. Beyond the corridor were two automatic doors leading to the parking lot.

And she was all alone.

A thought flashed through my mind: She’s about the same age as my granddaughter.

I took off after her. Not because I’m some nut-case. But because looking out for one another is what people are supposed to do.

With arms stiff at her sides, she darted toward the exit – step, step, step. “Daddy! Daddy!” she repeated, barely squeaking out the sounds.

While I have a hard time with certain pitches, I heard her tiny cries as plain as day.

When she was about four, my older daughter asked if she could wear her father’s hiking boots. I forgot about her for fifteen minutes while making a butter cake. She ended up a quarter of a mile away, a tiny speck in the mud-caked arroyo behind our house.

By this time, the little lost girl was out the door and down the front steps. A woman with a baby in her arms happened to be crossing the parking lot. Several older children brought up the rear.

“Is she yours?” I asked the woman.

Her eyes widened. No doubt at the thought of having one more. “Not mine,” she said.

The girl took my tissue and dabbed at her leaky nose.  She calmed down a bit, and finally made eye-contact. “What’s your name?” I asked.


“I’ll help you find your daddy, Jessie,” I said. “Let’s go back inside.”

Blowing snot bubbles into the tissue now, she allowed me to walk her back down the corridor. Through the large interior windows to the children’s room, I saw a man with a baldy haircut seated in one of the comfy chairs. “What does your daddy look like?” I asked.

“He doesn’t have a hat.”

Great. At least that’s a start.

Jessie and I rounded the corner to the children’s section. I leaned down. “Is that your daddy?” I said, pointing at a man with a baldy haircut and no hat.

Just then an interesting thing happened. Instead of rushing over and hugging her father in relief, she stopped dead in her tracks. She stood up tall and took a few deep breaths  – as though pulling herself together.

I asked once again, “Is that man your daddy?”

Jessie jerked her head up and down in a sort of nervous nod. Otherwise, she seemed expressionless.

Was she afraid to let him to know she’d been lost? That she’d gotten turned around and couldn’t find him?

I watched their reunion from a distance.

Cool as a cucumber, she walked across the room. No embrace. No emotional release.

“What happened?” he asked, not getting up.

She said nothing.

I went a closer, explaining that she’d gotten a little lost trying to find him. Truly, she was only missing four or five minutes.

“She didn’t go outside, though,” he said, as though just saying it, he could make it so.

“Yes, she did,” I said. “She went down the corridor and through the automatic doors.”

The man seemed clueless. As though he didn’t know his little girl needed reassurance, and he was the one to provide it now that she was safe.

I ventured a suggestion. “You might want to let her know what to do, in case she gets lost again.”

Looking embarrassed, he finally spoke to his daughter, “You know Officer Flores – where he sits out there…”

A grim-faced security guard watched from the entrance. I passed him on the way out. “But Officer Flores isn’t here right now,” the guard muttered.

Jessie didn’t need to be told what she should have done. She needed a safe harbor. To be comforted, scooped up in her father’s arms. A place to let it out.

Because this is how children process seemingly minor traumas like getting lost.

But Jessie, the comma of a girl with the long brown hair, did not feel safe letting it out.

She had to hold it in. It seemed to me that she had to be the adult, protecting her father from his own strong emotions – negative emotions that could devastate her.

In his bestselling book, How to Really Love Your Child, the late Dr. Ross Campbell writes that eye-contact, focused attention, and touch are needed for children to feel loved. In other words, they need empathy.

Some psychologists believe that by discharging emotion, instead of stuffing it – for fear of being punished or mocked – a child can “reboot.” They can move on in an emotionally healthy way, without the extra baggage.

Once I began using this approach with my own kids – listening with empathy as they expressed their upsets – I found they rebounded more quickly. But first I had to get my own emotions out of the way, and that can be hard for any parent.

Sometimes parents are justifiably angry. A child gets lost in Target and everyone but the National Guard is out looking for them. But that’s just when kids don’t need our anger. Instead of hearing, “Next time you’re staying home!” they need our empathy. “It was scary being lost, wasn’t it? You couldn’t find Mommy and Daddy.”

With empathy comes release. The tears flow.

Sometimes children will give a little shake after crying. Have you ever seen them do that? Or they yawn. Both are signs that stressful emotions have been released. And once released, these powerful feelings become less powerful.

Listening to them talk about their little traumas is the first step. FFG

For further reading:

Born for Love: Why Empathy is Essential – and Endangered, by Bruce D. Perry and Maia Szalavitz (William Morrow Paperbacks, 2011)

How to Really Love Your Child, by Ross Campbell (David C. Cook Publishers, 3 Rev Upd edition, April 1, 2015)

To Explore:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *