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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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.

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