Encouraging Children’s Empathy

Adorable girl comforting her little sister after she fell off her bike at summer park. Child getting hurt while riding a bicycle.

Empathy is the understanding of or sensitivity to others feelings and experiences. It is a developing trait across childhood and can greatly vary between children based on age, predisposition and experiences. There are several ways parents can coach the component pieces of emotion language and perspective taking.

Coach Emotion Language – Children being able to identify emotions in facial expressions, social context and in themselves is a strong foundation for empathy towards others. Here are several ways to coach emotions.

  • Use I messages – I messages are a productive way to label and share your emotions. They are also considered a foundation step of positive discipline. I messages label your emotions and explain why you feel that way while putting blame on the behavior or thing that happened rather than the child. Let’s say a child runs through the living room, and knocks over and breaks your lamp. An I message might be, “I am angry, my lamp is broken,” “I am upset, people are running in the house,” or, “I am frustrated, no one is listening.” The blame is passive (my lamp is broken) or global (no one is listening, people are running). This avoids blaming the child, “I am mad at you, you broke my lamp. You never listen.”
  • Give empathy – Empathy is validating your child’s emotions and why they feel that way. Often this can happen in the moment, and it’s also fine to provide this following an emotional exchange when all is calm. Empathy sounds like, “wow, you are angry. You didn’t like that game,” or, “I know you are upset, it’s so hard to be left out.”
  • Talk about others’ emotions – Discuss the sad baby you hear crying in the grocery store or the angry child who was having a fit at the playground. Label emotions, talk about things that make them feel that way or what others could do to help.
  • Be sure to include causes and consequences of emotions – At least occasionally in these conversations, discuss what came before the emotion or what happened as a result.
  • Read about emotions – There are so many good children’s books on emotions. There is a list on my blog at https://parentingbydrrene.wordpress.com/childrensbooks/#emotions.
  • Tell your own stories with emotional content – If you are at all creative, tell your own stories with emotional content. When our girls were little, we told a lot of Amy and Catie stories. Amy was remarkably like our daughter Alicen, and Catie just like our daughter Claire. If Alicen and Claire had an upset at the swingset, that night Amy and Katie would have a similar upset at the sandbox. Your stories should all provide examples of positive ways to manage and express emotions and ways to calm.
  • Ask hypotheticals – As children are four and five years old, you can ask hypotheticals related to their own experiences. If your child gets angry over sharing toys, you might ask, “what would you do if you really wanted to play with a particular car, and your friend was using it and kept saying ‘no’ to giving a turn?” If needed, help brainstorm good choices and discuss possible outcomes.
  • Role play emotions – Go back and reenact emotional situations. If it was an upset with another child, take turns being each child involved and think of ways it could have gone better.
  • Give puppet shows – Most kids love a puppet show. Again, it’s good to make these about familiar exchanges.
  • Play emotion charades – Play charades, just be sure to include emotions as a category.
  • Make emotion faces in the mirror and to each other – Talk about how we know someone is angry, excited, sad or happy.
  • Make an emotions poster – Divide a poster board into 6 squares labeled happy, sad, excited, mad, surprised and scared. Provide assorted magazines, then help children cut out and paste emotion faces and things that make them feel each way. You might write in each box additional things that make them feel that way or any other thoughts they have about that emotion.
  • Listen to and discuss emotional music – Listen together to sad, exciting or happy music. Then, talk about what each song makes them think of and how it makes them feel.
  • Paint emotion pictures – You might paint emotion posters while you listen to the emotional music.
  • Sing emotion songs – We sing “When You’re Happy and You Know It” and include movements like clapping for happy, stomping feet for mad and crying for sad.
  • Learn more – For more ideas, you can read Building Emotional Intelligence: Techniques to Cultivate Inner Strength in Children by Lantieri or Parents’ Guide to Emotion Coaching Young Children by Blaine.

(Again) Provide Empathy for Their Emotions – The more they are hearing the labels for their own emotions, the more likely they are able to apply this language to others. Empathy is often a good place to start in a discipline exchange or when helping them learn to manage social conflicts. Just acknowledging emotions as they are, lets the child know that you hear and understand them. Remember, it’s often empathy before the discipline or empathy before the fix.

Coach Perspective Taking – Perspective taking is being able to see a situation from another child’s point of view. This is limited in the preschool years. Young children are often still so egocentric in their view, it is hard to step out and consider another’s experience. You might introduce this when you and the child are disagreeing or feel differently about the same topic. At bedtime, maybe talk about how you are happy and looking forward to sleep and they are annoyed and wanting to put off sleep. You might point out differing feelings or opinion as part of addressing when they are in conflict with another child.

Children’s Books – Reading and discussing books can be a great way to teach social skills.

Here are a few good children’s books about empathy:

  • How Full is Your Bucket for Kids by Rath
  • I am Human: A Book of Empathy by Verde and Reynolds
  • You, Me and Empathy by Sanders
  • Empathy: I Know How You Feel by George
  • Stand in My Shoes by Sornsen

Here are a few good children’s books that introduce perspective taking:

  • Voices in the Park by Browne
  • They All Saw a Cat by Wenzel
  • 7 Blind Mice by Young
  • You Are (Not) Small by Kang

Schedule Playdates with Younger Children – Occasionally playing with a younger child can bring out caring and empathy from an older child. You might label emotions when they happen. You might suggest the older child help the younger child with tasks or teach them how to do something. You might highlight how considerate or helpful your older child was after the playdate.

Provide Other Oriented Consequences – In discipline or when supporting social exchanges, it can be helpful to include other oriented consequences. This is pointing out a child’s impact on others. “Look at your friend. He is sad. Grabbing that toy made him sad.” or “She doesn’t like that. Hitting hurts her.” The idea is to let your child know their behavior had an impact on the others while avoiding direct blame language. This basically means to highlight their behavior and avoid using the word “you.”

Provide Do-Overs – When it seems appropriate, it may be helpful to allow the child a do-over, a chance to improve their behavior or make a better choice instead of always giving a consequence. The do-over allows the child to really consider alternatives ways to change outcomes.

Highlight Deeds as Personal Traits – I’ve written often about using descriptive praise. When you are praising a child’s behavior, academics or athletics it can be helpful to describe the behavior and label. This may be “You handed a block. That was helpful.” Or “You wrote five sentences. That’s a lot of work!” There is new research to suggest it is helpful to occasionally highlight their trait rather than give a straight label. This would be “You handed a block. You are being helpful,” or “You are a helpful person.” And “You wrote five sentences. You are a hard worker!” Highlighting the trait may give the child more personal ownership. It may be more likely they carry that self descriptor with them to influence future behaviors. They may be more likely to think of themselves as a helper or a hard worker. When it comes to encouraging empathy, it would be commenting often about how kind, considerate, thoughtful or friendly they are.

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Helping a Child Learn to Calm Down

Little girl closed her eyes and breathes the fresh air. Black an

Does your child get anxious, angry or frustrated easily? In the moment, it’s often best to err on the side of support; rather than, challenging or giving logic and reason as an answer to their emotion. It’s often helpful to acknowledge the emotion, provide empathy and give time and space to let a child calm down. It can also be beneficial to spend some other time teaching them ways to settle. Many of these techniques offer the child a distraction from the upset or anger which can be enough to help them start to calm.

Best to teach these things out of the moment – Don’t wait until your child is freaking out to try teaching them how to take deep breaths. When people are angry or upset, they aren’t in a good place to learn something new. It’s far more effective to teach new skills or introduce new ideas when they are calm, or when all is well.

Make a calm down spot, an alone zone, a content apartment – In our house, this was a corner of the living room stacked with a few bean bags, pillows and favorite stuffed animals. A mom said her son liked a cardboard box with a door cutout and flashlights inside. The idea is to make a space that is inviting for your child, and is known to be a good place to go to calm down. This space shouldn’t also be tied to discipline or used for time-outs.

Make a few calm down boxes – Fill a few empty shoe boxes with small, quiet toys. This might include lacing boards, invisible ink books, or matchbox cars. We had a few boxes filled with felt board story pieces. You might hand your child a box when they need to calm down or keep a stack of boxes by your calm down spot.

Art, drawing even scribbling – In addition to calm down boxes, you might provide art supplies. Many people find painting, drawing or even making things to be calming things to do. If your child finds this helpful, it’s good to openly provide supplies and encourage their use.

Build a calm down library – It can be helpful to read and discuss children books related to any expected skill. Good books for children on calming down include:

  • Calm Down Time by Verdick
  • Cool Down and Work Through Anger by Meiners
  • A Boy and A Bear by Lite
  • Sea Otter Cove by Lite
  • Cool Cats, Calm Kids by Williams
  • Peaceful Piggy Meditation by MacLean
  • Mermaids and Fairy Dust by Kerr
  • Enchanted Meditations for Kids by Kerr
  • Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook for Kids by Shapiro

Deep breathing – This is the simple one, and it can be so helpful if your child buys in. In our house this was counting five slow, deep breaths and then focus on breathing in a regular way for a few minutes, then another five slow, deep breaths and regular again then repeating until you feel calm. For a younger child, you might provide breathing shapes. This would be cutting out construction paper stars and putting a dot in one corner. Teach your child to start with the dot and take one deep breath for each corner. Others suggest it may help to describe deep breathes with a flower and candle. This is taking a deep breath in through your nose like you are smelling a flower, and then out through your mouth like you are blowing out a candle.

Counting – Counting can be enough of a distraction task to give your child a chance to calm down. This might be counting slowly to 10, or counting backwards from 20, or counting as high as they can by threes or sixes. The idea is to either slow them down or give them a slight challenge to get them thinking. As an alternative, it can be helpful to inventory something. This might be counting ceiling tiles or number of people in a crowded area.

Visual counting -This one can take several practices before it’s useful in the moment. First, help your child pick a favorite activity or sport. Let’s say it’s soccer. Then, instruct your child to close their eyes and imagine themselves kicking the soccer ball down the field and into the goal. Have them keep their eyes closed and picture it once for as many years as they are old. For a six year old, they’d picture making six goals. After a few practice rounds, let your child know that when they are getting angry or frustrated it can be helpful to close their eyes and count their soccer goals.

Think of a favorite time or place – An easier visualization task may be to have them close their eyes and think about a favorite vacation or time at their favorite playground. Again, practice a few times and then recall this in the moment.

Mantras – My own mantra is, “breathe, breathe, breathe…”Whenever I am stressed, just reminding myself to breathe and focusing on each breath is helpful. A parenting mantra might be, “no one goes to college NOT potty trained,” for that difficult stretch of time. A child’s mantra might be as simple as, “I’m okay, I’m okay…,” or, “I can do this, I can do this…,” A mantra might follow one of the other suggestions like, “let’s just count, let’s just count…,” until they can get themselves started.

Get physical, run, swing or dance – Movement is calming for lots of people. This may be repetitive movement like swinging, or more physical exercise like running or climbing. It’s great to give kids movement opportunities often and movement outlets for their negative emotions when needed.

Muscle relaxation – There are a few mucle relaxation clips for children on youtube including relaxation: clip 1 and clip 2. Once you get the hang of it, this is something you can walk your child through, or they can do it by themselves. In our social skills groups we play a few related games including Melting Snowman and Tin Soldier. We start off as ice-cold, frozen snowmen. Then, the sun comes out and ever so slowly the snowmen melt until they are just puddles on the floor. For tin soldiers, we sit as upright as we can with our arms and legs and back held straight out. Then, we turn into ragdolls and flop on the floor. The idea in both is to end up relaxing your whole body.

Yoga (gymnastics, karate, ice skating) – If a child enjoys these activities, it’s good to encourage them to continue. While the movement itself can be relaxing, there’s also the long term benefit of children learning to control their bodies and be disciplined to practice.

Fully describe something – Describing something is another way to distract from an upset. This means looking around the room and finding something to fully describe to yourself for a minute. This might be a painting or a toy.

Focus on solutions – Focusing on solutions can be calming to anyone. If I am frustrated by how messy my house is, and I continue to focus on the mess and who made it or how they don’t help, I am just upsetting myself. It can be calming to make a plan for cleaning, and make decisions about how it should look in the end. For a child who is angry about how a game is going, this is getting them to focus on the solution, how to best resolve it. Even better if they can brainstorm and come up with a few options for solving.

Music – Listening to a favorite song or happy music can be a way to help children calm. It may be useful to have them build a playlist and keep it handy.

Mindfulness – This is teaching children to stay present and to let go of worries about the past or anxieties about the future. It’s slowing down and being aware of your feelings. Here are a few fun ways to get started: midfulness clip 1 and clip2. This may include meditation. Here are a few links to meditation ideas for children: meditation clip 1 and clip 2.

 

 

It’s Okay for Your Child to be Frustrated

Little girl looking angry in the kitchen with mother in background

It’s okay for your child to be frustrated. It’s okay when your child is disappointed. This is not something for you to avoid or fix for them. It is something for you to connect with, and to help them move through.

A dad of a four-year-old questioned, “we have a routine when we run to the grocery store of stopping for an ice cream next door, and then the toy store to sit on a rocking horse, and then to get groceries. Some days time is tight and I want to just get groceries, but he gets upset so I feel I can’t. Do I have to get ice cream and visit the toy store?”

While it is a nice outing, it is life to have changes in routine. It’s better to help your child learn to cope, than to tip-toe around it and avoid the upset.

You might help by preparing them for the change. On the way, you might say, “I know you like stopping for ice cream and the toy store. Today we only have time for the grocery store.” You might then offer a choice, “would you like to pick the ice cream or the cereal?” or a challenge, “can you count all the items we put in the cart?” or a job, “I need a cart pusher,” to get them thinking about the grocery store rather than the ice cream or toy store.

For the upset that still may follow, it’s good to provide empathy; “I know it’s frustrating when we have to change our plan,” or, “I know you really like the other stops.” Often it’s good to connect with hugs or hand holding.

Out of the moment, it’s good to coach them on emotions and ways to manage when their triggers happen. Here is a link to a blog post which includes way to coach emotions and the importance of triggers: https://parentingbydrrene.com/…/preventing-tantrums-emotion…/

The idea is – prepare the child for the path, not the path for the child.

Ways to Teach Apologies and Avoid Forcing Them

Girl with Sorry sign

When children are young

  • Model apologies – Young children learn best through modeling. When you are in the wrong about things, apologize to them and others easily. If they see and hear you being comfortable with apologies, they are more likely to follow suit.
  • Suggest and encourage apologies – I have read that others suggest we not encourage young children to apologize, because they don’t know what they are saying, they don’t understand the meaning of, “I’m sorry.” While I agree, young children don’t often understand the full meaning, I chalk up encouraging them to say, “I’m sorry,” to a general social grace. We do encourage young children to say, “please,” and, “thank you,” and, “excuse me,” which they also don’t understand. I think it’s fine to encourage them to build good social habits.

As children are older

  • Give choices about how to apologize – Once your child is five years old, I think it’s fine to offer choices such as writing a note or drawing a picture to apologize. You might offer choices of apologizing now or in a few minutes, saying it out loud or whispering it in someone’s ear (provided that the receiver is agreeable).
  • Give time to apologize – It can actually be helpful to the situation to give kids a few minutes to calm down and collect themselves. They might take a minute to think about what happened and decide what to say before apologizing.

Discuss the three parts of apologies

  • Say it – Saying, “I’m sorry,” is the first part of an apology. It’s great if it’s heartfelt and honest. It can be dismissive if it’s just thrown out there, or worse, yelled at another child.
  • Feel it – Feeling sorry for what you’ve done is the next step. You might ask your child to think about how they would feel in the other child’s position. You might discuss how they feel now about what happened and about having to apologize. You might touch base after and talk about how it feels after an apology.
  • Do something to make it better – Making amends is another important step. This might be helping a friend hold their ice pack on a related injury or helping rebuild the block tower that was knocked down.

Avoid forced apologies

Forced apologies happen in one of two ways. Either the child is angry and resists having to apologize, or the child is embarrassed and hesitant to apologize. In both cases, the child’s own negative emotions often get in the way of developing a sense of empathy.

If your child is angry and not feeling sorry about what happened, and you force the apology, the result is predictable. Your angry child likely will storm over to the other, bark, “SORRY!” at them and leave abruptly. Rather than teaching your child to feel empathy, this situation seems to provoke feelings in the opposite direction. Your child may actually resent the other child more for his role in this interaction. The resentment overrides any developing empathy. Your child also learns that saying sorry, even if he doesn’t mean it, is enough to fix a wrong-doing.

If your child is embarrassed by the idea of having to apologize, but is forced to do so, the result differs but is just as predictable. With a push, your child may slowly approach the other child and then quietly say, “sorry,” while fighting back tears. Empathy requires the child to focus on the thoughts and feeling of another. When a child is embarrassed, he is thinking mostly of himself which inhibits the development of empathy.

Rather than force an apology from an angry or embarrassed child, you will have more success building a sense of empathy and teaching the language of sincere apologies through modeling. In the case of anger, take your child with you and say something like, “I am so sorry he did that. I would like to make it better.” Here, the parent is speaking for himself. The parent is sorry, the child is not. In the case of embarrassment, take your child with you and say something like, “he is so sorry. He would like to make it better.” The child actually is sorry, just reluctant to address it. Your child will have the benefit of hearing a sincere apology and optimally will be better able to focus on the feelings of the other child rather than his own.

Preventing Tantrums : Emotion Language, Triggers and Cues

Tantrum child with mom

When children are tantrumming often, parents just want it to stop. Part of stopping tantrums is working to prevent them in the first place. Teaching your child emotion language and knowing their triggers and cues can go a long way towards prevention.

Children need emotion language to better express their upsets. When they can label their emotions and talk about why they are feeling that way, they are much less likely to fall on the ground kicking and screaming. When they can say, “I am mad! I didn’t like that!” in the moment, they are less likely to tantrum. There are MANY ways to teach children emotion language.

  • Use I messages – I messages are a productive way to label and share your emotions. They are also considered a foundation step of positive discipline. I messages label your emotions and explain why you feel that way while putting blame on the behavior or thing that happened rather than the child. Let’s say a child runs through the living room, and knocks over and breaks your lamp. An I message might be, “I am angry, my lamp is broken,” “I am upset, people are running in the house,” or, “I am frustrated, no one is listening.” The blame is passive (my lamp is broken) or global (no one is listening, people are running). This avoids blaming the child, “I am mad at you, you broke my lamp. You never listen.”
  • Give empathy – Empathy is validating your child’s emotions and why they feel that way. Often this can happen in the moment, and it’s also fine to provide this following an emotional exchange when all is calm. Empathy sounds like, “wow, you are angry. You didn’t like that game,” or, “I know you are upset, it’s so hard to be left out.”
  • Talk about others’ emotions – Discuss the sad baby you hear crying in the grocery store or the angry child who was having a fit at the playground. Label emotions, talk about things that make them feel that way or what others could do to help.
  • Be sure to include causes and consequences of emotions – At least occasionally in these conversations, discuss what came before the emotion or what happened as a result.
  • Read about emotions – There are so many good children’s books on emotions.  There is a list on my blog at https://parentingbydrrene.wordpress.com/childrensbooks/#emotions.
  • Tell your own stories with emotional content – If you are at all creative, tell your own stories with emotional content. When our girls were little, we told a lot of Amy and Catie stories. Amy was remarkably like our daughter Alicen, and Catie just like our daughter Claire. If Alicen and Claire had an upset at the swingset, that night Amy and Katie would have a similar upset at the sandbox. Your stories should all provide examples of positive ways to manage and express emotions and ways to calm.
  • Ask hypotheticals – As children are four and five years old, you can ask hypotheticals related to their own experiences. If your child gets angry over sharing toys, you might ask, “what would you do if you really wanted to play with a particular car, and your friend was using it and kept saying ‘no’ to giving a turn?”  If needed, help brainstorm good choices and discuss possible outcomes.
  • Role play emotions – Go back and reenact emotional situations. If it was an upset with another child, take turns being each child involved and think of ways it could have gone better.
  • Give puppet shows – Most kids love a puppet show. Again, it’s good to make these about familiar exchanges.
  • Play emotion charades – Play charades, just be sure to include emotions as a category.
  • Make emotion faces in the mirror and to each other – Talk about how we know someone is angry, excited, sad or happy.
  • Make an emotions poster – Divide a poster board into 6 squares labeled happy, sad, excited, mad, surprised and scared. Provide assorted magazines, then help children cut out and paste emotion faces and things that make them feel each way.  You might write in each box additional things that make them feel that way or any other thoughts they have about that emotion.
  • Listen to and discuss emotional music – Listen together to sad, exciting or happy music. Then, talk about what each song makes them think of and how it makes them feel.
  • Paint emotion pictures – You might paint emotion posters while you listen to the emotional music.
  • Sing emotion songs – We sing “When You’re Happy and You Know It” and include movements like clapping for happy, stomping feet for mad and crying for sad.
  • Learn more – For more ideas, you can read Building Emotional Intelligence: Techniques to Cultivate Inner Strength in Children by Lantieri or Parents’ Guide to Emotion Coaching Young Children by Blaine. You can also attend or listen online to my workshop on emotional development and emotion coaching.

Triggers are what sets your child off. Tantrum triggers fall into three categories including situational triggers, social triggers and parent stress level. Knowing what sets your child off, allows you to see it coming in the moment and to teach your child how to better manage out of the moment.

  • Situational triggers – Situational triggers include the child being hungry or tired.  As a parent, this one falls on you to stay ahead of or fix. If you child tantrums from hunger, carry crackers in your bag and feed them healthy snacks more often. If your child tantrums from being tired, look at their sleep in the 24 hour period, check their nap schedule and build quiet time into their day.
  • Social triggers – Social triggers are harder. This is a child that tantrums over having to share toys, being told “no” or not being first at something. The answer here is to teach your child how to better move through these moments. If the difficulty is over sharing toys then read and discuss children’s books about sharing, role play taking turns, tell stories or give puppet shows about sharing and taking turns, draw pictures of it going well and then coach them through it in the moment. Avoiding the trigger doesn’t work. If you end all playdates because your child falls to pieces over sharing, then your child loses the opportunities they need to practice.
  • Parent stress level – This one can be hard to see. When parents are particularly stressed, children tend to tantrum more. It may be that they are reflecting the level or tone of emotion they feel in the house. It may be that because you are stressed, you are preoccupied. When you are preoccupied, you might not be as in touch as you usually are, and they have to get bigger and louder to get your attention. When you are stressed, do you seeing them rubbing their eyes, or do they have to be dragging on the floor to see they are tired? Do you recognize their frown, or do they have to be sobbing to get you to see they are sad? If they have to be dragging or sobbing, they will likely tantrum more because you are just not paying attention. This can often be tied back to your stress level. I’m not saying be super-parent and never feel stressed, just recognize when you are and the role it might play.

Cues are signs your child is about to lose it. Some kids do go zero to sixty, they are walking along and then BOOM, they are on the floor in full-tantrum. Most kids though, do give you a warning or a cue. Sometimes they are generous and give you a few minutes notice, other times it’s just a few seconds. The trick is to recognize your child’s cues and then intervene when they happen, before the tantrum. Some kids get fidgety, others get whiny or loud. It could be as slight as narrowing their eyes or their shoulders getting tense. There are several ways to intervene that may avoid the tantrum.

  • Distraction – Distraction, before the tantrum, is fine while it works. For most kids, at some point, this just doesn’t work. While you are using distraction in the moment, you still want to be teaching emotion language and teaching them ways to better manage when the triggers happen.
  • Empathy – Giving empathy means you validate your child’s emotions, even when you disagree with those emotions in the moment. Let’s say your four-year-old loses at a game and throws the pieces across the room, denying their emotions (what you want to avoid) would be saying, “you shouldn’t be so angry, it’s just a game.” Giving empathy (what you want to do) would be saying, “wow, you are angry! You didn’t like that game.” This validates the emotions, and lets them know you understand how they are feeling. There are so many beneficial reasons to start with empathy here, at the top is that it helps many children start to calm.
  • Positive Intent – Giving positive intent is giving the benefit of the doubt, seeing the good reasons behind the bad behaviors and validating their motives. When children are called for snack and are now knocking each other out of the way to get there, they are “really excited for snack,” rather than “rude and careless.”
  • Choices – In this case, choices are a distraction away from the tantrum. When children are making choices, they are being cognitive, and when they are cognitive they tend to be less emotional. Choices are two positive choices about how, when or where they can do something. Choices for a child who’s upset about not being able to get his shoes on might be, “do you want me to try, or do you want to try again?” or, “do you want to sit on the top step or the bottom step to try again?” or, “do you want to put them on in the car, or when we get there?”

If you don’t know your child’s triggers or cues, you might want to chart their behavior. Charting behavior can be helpful anytime there is repeat behaviors such as lots of tantrums or many aggressive acts. Charting is easiest if you keep a notebook. Give each tantrum one page and on each page make a template. This includes noting where it was, when it was, who was around, what seemed to set it off, any cues they were about to lose it, what happened during, how long it lasted, how they found their calm and what happened after. Once you have notes on several tantrums, you might be able to read through the notes and find patterns. You might realize that your child is always tantrumming around 11:30am, maybe it would help to move lunch earlier. Maybe your child is tantrumming when other children are playing together, and he feels left out. You might role play or read books about joining play.

Teaching Children Empathy

Empathy is the child’s ability to recognize and understand another’s emotions. This is a gradually developing trait throughout the childhood years. While young toddlers may react to others’ emotions, their ability to understand those emotions or recognize the other person is having a separate experience is limited. To support their growing sense of empathy, parents and teachers can teach about emotions and perspective taking.

There are lots of ways to teach emotion language. Here is a link to our blog post on child-friendly ways to gradually introduce emotions: https://parentingbydrrene.com/2013/03/11/ways-to-teach-children-emotion-language/

The goal by kindergarten is to have a child that can use their words to express emotions, and to be able to express emotions in ways that don’t get them into trouble. To meet this goal, the child needs a lot of emotion language input. A few goals are that by two and three years old the child should be able to label emotions, by three and four identify emotional expressions, and by four and five talk about causes and consequences of emotions. Right along with this is teaching them ways to best express and ways to calm.

Two year olds are almost entirely egocentric in their view. By five and six years old they are often better able to see another’s viewpoint. An easy way to teach perspective taking is through children’s storybooks. Children are used to talking about the characters and plots in their storybooks. To introduce the idea of empathy, stop and ask questions about how the characters are feeling or what they are thinking and why. With older children, discuss how different characters might feel and think differently at the same point in the story. Another way to teach this is to point out others’ perspectives often, especially when there is a disagreement. With a three year old, this might sound like, “look at your friend.  He is sad, he didn’t like that.” As they are older, you might question their understanding.  With a six year old, you might ask, “how is your friend feeling now? What happened that made him feel that way?” The more they can reflect other’s emotions the better.

Children’s Books

Understand and Care by Meiners

How Full is Your Bucket for Kids by Rath and Reckmeyer

Stand in My Shoes: Kids Learning About Empathy by Sornson

Visiting Feelings by Ruenstein

Parenting Books

Teaching Children Empathy: The Social Emotion by Caselman

Roots of Empathy: Changing the World Child by Child by Gordon

Ways to Teach Children Emotion Language

Emotion language provides children a tool for managing social exchange. By the time they get to Kindergarten, I want children to be able to look at their friend and say, “I am mad at you. You took my block,” rather than clobber them. There are many ways to teach children emotion language, here are a few:

  • Use I messages – I messages are a productive way to label and share your emotions. They are also considered a foundation step of positive discipline. I messages label your emotions and explain why you feel that way by putting blame on the behavior or thing that happened rather than the child. Let’s say a child runs through the living room, and knocks over and breaks your lamp. An I message might be, “I am angry, my lamp is broken,” “I am upset, people are running in the house,” or “I am frustrated, no one is listening.” The blame is passive (my lamp is broken) or global (no one is listening, and people are running). This AVOIDS blaming the child, “I am mad at you, you broke my lamp. You never listen.”
  • Give empathy – Empathy is validating your child’s emotions and why they feel that way. Often this can happen in the moment, and it’s also fine to provide following an emotional exchange, once all is calm. Empathy sounds like, “wow, you are angry. You didn’t like that game,” or, “I know you are upset, it’s so hard to be left out.”
  • Talk about others’ emotions – Discuss the sad baby you hear crying in the grocery store or the angry child who was having a fit at the playground. Label emotions, talk about things that make them feel that way or what others could do to help.
  • Be sure to include causes and consequences of emotions – At least occasionally in these conversations, discuss what came before the emotion or what happened as a result.
  • Read about emotions – There are so many good children’s books on emotions.  There is a list on my blog at: https://parentingbydrrene.wordpress.com/childrensbooks/#emotions.
  • Tell your own stories with emotional content – If you are at all creative, tell your own stories with emotional content. When our girls were little, we told a lot of Amy and Catie stories. Amy was remarkably like our daughter Alicen, and Catie just like our daughter Claire. When Alicen and Claire had an upset at the swingset, that night Amy and catie would have a similar upset at the sandbox. Your stories should all provide examples of positive ways to manage and express emotions and ways to calm.
  • Ask hypotheticals – As children are four and five years old, you can ask hypotheticals related to their own experiences. If your child gets angry over sharing toys, you might ask, “what would you do if you really wanted to play with a particular car, and your friend was using it and kept saying ‘no’ to giving a turn?” If needed, help brainstorm good choices and discuss possible outcomes.
  • Role play emotions – Go back and reenact emotional situations. If it was an upset with another child, take turns being each child involved and think of ways it could have gone better.
  • Give puppet shows – Most kids love a puppet show. Again it’s good to make these about familiar exchanges.
  • Play emotion charades – Play charades, just be sure to include emotions as a category.
  • Make emotion faces in the mirror and to each other – Talk about how we know someone is angry, excited, sad or happy.
  • Make an emotions poster – Divide a poster board into six squares labeled happy, sad, excited, mad, surprised and scared. Provide assorted magazines, then help children cut out and paste emotion faces and things that make them feel each way.  You might write in each box additional things that make them feel that way or any other thoughts they have about that emotion.
  • Listen to and discuss emotional music – Listen together to sad, exciting or happy music. Talk about what each song makes them think of and how it makes them feel.
  • Paint emotion pictures – You might paint while you listen to the emotional music.
  • Sing emotion songs –  We sing “When You’re Happy and You Know It” and include movements like clapping for happy, stomping feet for mad and crying for sad.

For more ideas you can read Building Emotional Intelligence: Techniques to Cultivate Inner Strength in Children by Lantieri or Parents’ Guide to Emotion Coaching Young Children by Blaine. You can also attend or listen online to our workshop on emotional development and emotion coaching.

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