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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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.

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