“Touching Raspberries” courtesy jonny hunter
Your daughter pokes her little sister and says she “doesn’t care” how it made her feel. Your son hits his friend who came over for a play date and doesn’t seem to understand that it hurt him. Your daughter and her friend gang up on another girl on the playground and hurt her feelings. They run away when you come to talk to them because they are scared of “getting in trouble”, but show no concern for the other girl’s feelings.
Is this sounding a little too familiar? The underlying skill that the children in these examples need to strengthen is empathy. Empathy is our ability to feel what another person (or animal) is feeling, and it is essential for developing healthy relationships throughout life. As I see it there are three parts to empathy:
1. Recognizing the clues that tell us what the other person or creature is feeling
2. Connecting personally with that feeling
3. Acting in a way that honors the other person.
When adults experience empathy, these parts of the process blend together imperceptibly, but young children who are just learning often need help to see each piece individually before they are able to do it on their own. Just as with any other skill, it takes time to learn empathy. When you are learning to ride a bike, you need to figure out how each part works: how to turn the handlebars in the direction you want to go, how to balance, how to use your feet to turn the pedals, how to use the brakes. Once you know how, you don’t need to think about where the brakes are, or how to balance; your body completes all the necessary motions seamlessly. But to get to that point you had to fall down, turn the wrong way, skin a knee. You had to put in a lot of work.
It can be very upsetting when your child hurts another child/a pet/you and does not seem to care. That’s because it’s hard for adults to remember a time before they really understood how other people were feeling. If you can begin to think of developing empathy as a skill to be learned rather than a judgment of your child, this will make the process a lot easier. So how do we “teach” children empathy? Let’s look at four basic steps you can use to nurture this process.
1. Modeling Empathy
First off, you can model the behavior you want to see by showing concern for the hurt child (which you probably do anyway without even thinking about it!). Now I want you to take it a step further by empathizing with the child who did the hurting, as this will accomplish two things:
1) You will be teaching empathy by example
2) It will break down a potential power struggle with your child before she has a chance to get defensive.
If you have been watching the kids and you know why the hitting happened, you can say something to acknowledge this. For example,
“I can tell you feel really mad at Beatrice for taking your dinosaur.”
If you don’t know why the hitting happened, you can ask or take a guess:
“It looks like you got really upset about something. Are you mad at Beatrice?” and follow up with, “Why?”
2. Looking For Clues
Now it’s time to focus your child’s attention on the one who was hurt. You can do this by helping your child recognize the physical clues that tell you how the other person is feeling. For instance,
“It looks like Beatrice is really upset. Look at her face – she’s crying a lot.”
Some other physical clues you can help your child tune into include: scrunched up face, red face, runny nose, red eyes from crying, or an obvious injury such as a scrape. If an animal was hurt, you can say,
“I can tell Kitty didn’t like that because she ran away. She is hiding under the bed where we can’t reach her because she is scared.”
3. Make a Personal Connection
Bring it home for your child by asking her to imagine how she would feel if someone hit (or pushed/kicked/pinched/etc.) her. Ask,
“Would it hurt your body? Would you feel mad? Scared? Sad?”
If she just clams up or glares at you and says something like “I don’t know”, just ignore it and respond with,
“Well, I don’t like it when people hit me. It makes me feel sad when a friend hurts me.”
If you can remember an incident in which your child was hurt, you can use it to remind them of how it feels to be hurt:
“Remember when Aaron hit you? I remember you said it hurt and you were mad at Aaron for doing that.”
Once you or your child has named how she would feel if she was the one hurt, use that information to connect to the other child. This is especially important if the hurt child is too young to express herself. You can say something like
“That’s how Beatrice feels, too. She’s just too little to know how to tell you.”
4. Do Something To Help
If the child who was hurt is old enough to talk, now is the time to involve them in the process. Have your child check in with the other child by asking:
“Are you okay?” and “Do you want a hug?”
You can moderate this conversation by asking the hurt child if she would like anything else to make her feel better, like a band-aid, ice pack, or back rub. If so, you can ask your child to help bring the hurt child whatever she needs, and sit with her until she is feeling better.
5. Bring it Full Circle
Once injuries have been tended to, and feelings are on the mend, it is time to think about what your child could do differently next time. When kids hit, it is almost always because they don’t know what else to do to handle their feelings (pretty much true of adults, too!). Now is the time to revisit why they hit, and brainstorm some alternative ways to handle the situation next time. Involving the hurt child in this process can really help things along. Ask your child for her ideas first. Once she comes up with an idea, run it by the hurt child by saying,
“Would you like that better?” or “Do you think that’s a good idea?”
If your child can’t think of anything, try asking the hurt child for ideas. If neither one thinks of anything, you can jump in with a few ideas of your own. For instance,
“If Beatrice takes your dinosaur again, you could tell her ‘I’m still playing with that, Beatrice. Give it back please.’”
Remind both children that if they ever don’t know what to do, or if someone is not listening to them, they can get you and you will help.
“Accepting the World As It Is” courtesy jonny hunter
Empathy Takes Time
Most kids need to repeat the steps of this process many, many times before it starts to sink in. You wouldn’t throw your child into a pool for the first time and expect them to swim – and we can’t expect children to become compassionate beings who can solve all of their own problems the first time out! You may start to sound like a broken record, but remember: it is the cumulative effects of many little lessons that add up to a new skill. You’re doing a great job.
To Review: Developing Empathy in a Nutshell:
- Empathize with each of the children involved
- Help your child spot the physical clues that a person is upset
- Make it personal for your child by tapping into the memory of their own feelings when they have been hurt in the past
- Use those emotional memories to talk about how the other child must feel
- Engage your child in helping the other child feel better
- Brainstorm what they could do differently next time
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