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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Teaching Kids How to Take Another’s Perspective

Conflict on the playground. Two kids fighting over a toy shovel in the sandboxPerspective taking is very limited in young children. Like, how two-year-olds close their eyes to hide when playing hide and seek. The thought is, ‘if they can’t see themselves, you can’t see them.’ Three-year-olds stand in front of you and don’t realize you can’t see through them. Even four years olds get confused when you don’t already know things they think about or dream about.

Perspective taking and emotion understanding are foundation pieces of a developing sense of empathy. Being able to understand how another is feeling starts with understanding that the other exists separately, and then that they see and later think and feel differently.

By grade school, the hope is children have a basic understanding of others’ views, thoughts and emotions as separate from their own and important.

Ways to Teach

Other’s View – As a way to introduce differences in perspective taking, you might have each person stand on a different side of a statue or play structure and describe or draw what they see. You might also read and discuss Seven Blind Mice by Young. In this story, seven blind mice meet an elephant, and each mouse assumes it is something different based on the part of the elephant they can feel.

View of Artwork – You could visit an art museum and discuss how a painting makes each of you feel, or what a sculpture makes each of you think about. You might discuss how your perceptions might differ based on individual experiences.

Responses to Music – You could listen together and discuss the way it makes you each feel and why. You might talk about similarities and differences in what the lyrics mean to each of you.

Recognize Emotions – It can be helpful to label and discuss emotions often. This includes your’s, their’s and other’s emotions. When appropriate, you might discuss differences in emotional responses, both what the emotions are and different ways people express emotions.

Encourage Role Play – When children pretend to be a doctor, teacher, police officer, grandma or puppy they are stepping into another’s role. Encourage them to tell their story, to think about how they would feel in a situation or what they would do and why.

Ask Questions to Find Out More – This might be encouraging your child to ask a tour guide a question at a museum or to ask a friend a question about his new puppy. Let your child know that asking others questions is a good way to find out more about all kinds of things. In our social skills groups, we take turns having one child sit in a chair to answer questions about a favorite toy, activity or pet. Others sitting on the floor take turns asking questions to learn more.

Play Can You Imagine – After a birthday party you might ask, “can you imagine if you were the only girl at that party? How would it be different?” About school, “can you imagine being the youngest kid in all your classes?” or, “can you imagine being a new kid in the middle of the school year? It might be tough to make new friends when everyone else already knows each other.” or, “can you imagine how hard it might be if you still had difficulty with reading?” The point is to put your child in a place to think about the challenges others face. There are countless options here.

Story Books – There are several children’s storybooks that may be helpful in the discussions about perspective taking, other’s emotions and impact on others.

  • How Full Is Your Bucket for Kids by Rath – A nice way to introduce impact on others and how behaviors shape feelings.
  • Stand in My Shoes by Sornson – A good introduction to viewing other’s emotions.
  • What if Everybody Did That by Javernick – A light way to look at the impact of negative behaviors.
  • Everyone by Neal – How we all share similar emotions.
  • They All Saw a Cat by Wenzel – How “perspective shapes what we see.”
  • Seven Blind Mice by Young – An introduction to perspective taking.

Conflicts in Story Books – Many children’s storybooks contain some type of conflict. When characters are in conflict you might discuss how the various characters view the conflict, why they view it the way they do, and how they might be feeling about it.

Freezing, Comparing and Coaching through Conflicts – After a bit of practice in storybooks, you might freeze your children in or follow conflict moments to discuss how each viewed the conflict, why they had their view, and how each was feeling during. This works best when emotions aren’t too high or later, once everyone is calm.

Discuss Other’s Efforts, Progress and Struggles – This includes pointing out a soccer teammate’s hard work, a classmate’s study habits or a friend’s working through their own conflict. This isn’t meant as pressure on your child, just a comment that they aren’t alone in the process.

Acknowledge Their Reasons in Conflict with You – This may be the most difficult on the list; it can be helpful to occasionally acknowledge their point of view during disagreements. This reflective listening tends to validate their side, let them know you are listening. This might be, “I hear you really want that. All of your friends have one and  it seems like you feel left out.” or, “you really don’t like what I just said. I get that it is upsetting. You want it the other way.” You might use this to check in by asking, “am I understanding this correctly?” You might also ask them to identify or rephrase your point.

Talk through Your Own Conflicts and Point Out the Various Sides – When your children see you in conflict, it can be helpful to step back and explain the various sides. Model looking at the problem from various perspectives and including that information in how you solve the problem.

 

 

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

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