Best ways to teach empathy to children

Help kids recognize their feelings and understand how others feel

Empathy: Two young girls hug each other and smile at the camera on a sunny playground.

A young child, having heard the unacceptable “no” when asking his mom for a new toy or a sweet treat, throws back his head and lets out a shriek of protest. And what should be a momentary outburst drags on. And on. And on.

Have you been there? Most mothers have, at least once. The public temper tantrum, which has the power to leave you both enraged and embarrassed.

What do you do? Do you take the child by the arm and sternly hiss that he must control himself right this very moment?

What if instead you crouched down, looked your child in the eye, and simply gave voice to those feelings? You might say, “I know you are upset, buddy. You are disappointed that I won’t buy you that new Lego set. You think that you should get a new toy, and you are mad at me for saying no.”

Empathy — the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. A parent who can effectively model and employ empathy is well equipped to be able to defuse potential meltdowns.

Young children frequently throw fits, or temper tantrums, for a variety of reasons. To learn more about the act of temper tantrums, what causes them, and some tips for preventing them, I would encourage you to visit one of my previous blog entries, Understanding and Managing Temper Tantrums, which can be found here.

For now, I want to discuss empathy and offer some guidance on how to best teach empathy to children. Have you ever thought about empathy as a learned skill? Or is it, to you, something we are simply predisposed with? Are some of us just naturally more empathetic? Or can it be taught? Empathy, to me, is a learned skill, one that can be modeled and passed onto our younger generations. The key is to help them clearly understand and communicate their emotions.

Empathy in a child’s early years

When children are especially young, between one to four years old, they are very limited in their ability to communicate what they are feeling and what they are thinking. Additionally, they may not even know what they are feeling. Is it any wonder, then, that these feelings can become overwhelming?

As caregivers, it is our job to help our children understand their feelings. Not only to give them the words, but also to acknowledge and validate the feelings they are struggling to comprehend.

In the above scenario, the child is throwing a tantrum due to not knowing how to more appropriately express disappointment at not getting what he wants. The mother acknowledges those feelings and helps the child to at least understand why he is feeling that way.

In another situation, a young child might be so distraught over a father’s refusal for just 10 more minutes with her tablet that she runs to the hallway and begins banging her head against the wall.

Sure, the father may step in and prevent her from injuring herself, but just as important are his word choices. Does he warn her of a timeout if she does not stop that right this very minute? Or does he, instead, help her recognize what she is feeling?

“I see that you are angry you have used up all of your screen time for this afternoon,” he might say. “Once you settle down, I would love to find an activity that we can do together.”

As he turns to return to his own chores, the father keeps one eye on his daughter to make sure she is safe. Then, once she finally calms down, he praises her self-control and, again, gives voice to what she had been feeling, offering perspective on how those feelings differ.

For example, he might say, “I am glad to see that you are more content now, more in control of yourself. I did not like to see you so angry before.”

Even later, the father might choose to revisit the scenario once more by explaining that everyone gets angry sometimes and that it is OK. Together, the father and daughter might brainstorm ideas through which the child can more appropriately express her anger. Could she draw a picture that shows her anger? Could she make a really mad face? Some families have found success with having a safe area where a child can tear up old newspapers, pop bubble wrap or even jump on a mini trampoline.

Identifying the purpose of the head banging is crucial. Sure, the child is trying to get what she wants, but it is frequently deeper than that. The head banging is the result of the child’s frustration at not being able to communicate her emotions.

Usually, as children grow and develop a wider range of vocabulary and understanding of their feelings in general, these types of temper tantrum behaviors will stop.

The oppositional child

There comes a time in every child’s life when the child realizes he or she is a separate being and really does not have to do what parents say. “Hey, kiddo, it’s time to go take a bath,” mom might say, heading to the bathroom to begin drawing the water.

But instead of the pitter-patter of obedience following down the hall, she hears a bedroom door slam behind her. “No!” the child shouts. “I don’t want to take a bath.”

There is something powerful in the moments when a child realizes he or she can control personal decisions. The key, from a parenting perspective, is to help your child learn how to be in control of every action in a more positive way.

As a parent, it is important that you are able to recognize the situations that may lead to oppositional behaviors. By identifying such triggers, you should be able to help your child learn to cope. For example, if your child struggles to transition from active play to quiet reading time, you might set a kitchen timer so the child knows the change is coming. Or, you might make a picture board that shows the daily routine: after dinner, it will be bath time, and then after bath time, it will be reading time.

Do you have a picky eater at home? Many children are known for throwing fits at dinnertime because they cannot eat French fries and chicken nuggets every single night. In this case, a parent might choose to have a child help meal plan for the week, offering different choices that the child can assign to specific days of the week. Or, some families have had success in letting the child take an active role in the actual dinner preparations, maybe tossing the salad, buttering the bread or peeling the carrots (if old enough and appropriately supervised).

Acknowledging feelings

Have you ever felt so overwhelmed with emotion that you could just scream? So has your child – and that was probably when screaming actually did occur.

Remember the bath time scenario from before? How do you think the mother could have best handled the scenario? Should she have marched right into the bedroom, said the behavior was completely unacceptable and then dragged the child into the bath?

Or maybe she could have more calmly approached, crouching down to eye level and patiently explained exactly why it was important a bath be taken. Then, as the child hears mom’s reasoning and calms down, she could further explain that the outburst was not acceptable. The second sounds much more reasonable, yes?

But, yet, it skips a very important step: The mother did not validate her child’s feelings.

Ideally, a parent should first acknowledge and validate the child’s feelings. It not only would give the child a greater understanding of what it means to be angry, but it also would show that you understand and empathize — it says you know your child’s feelings matter.

At this point, too, it is important to emphasize and explain that your child’s feelings are not a problem. It is not wrong to feel anger or hurt or disappointment. It is what the child does with these emotions that is the problem, such as door slamming or head banging. Those behaviors are unacceptable; the feelings are not.

Potential pitfalls

Imagine a child consistently fighting bedtime. First, the child runs around the house, laughing manically; then, breaking down in tears and begging to stay up just a little bit longer; sometimes, screaming and throwing a fit; other times, hiding in hopes of gaining a few more minutes of wakefulness. Finally, having had enough of the chaos, the child’s parents begin adopting a more calming bedtime routine. They begin using a timer to countdown to quiet time or consistently limit reading to two storybooks each night. Common parent responses may be:

  • “Just one more book before bedtime, OK?”
  • “Now it’s bedtime, OK?”
  • “We’re going to turn off the lights now, OK?”

Let me warn you here about the dangers of falling into the “OK” trap. It sounds like the right thing to say. They are giving advanced notice; they are being consistent. But what they do not realize is that every time they say “OK” with an inherent question mark, they are confusing their child. Because the child thinks, “No, it is not OK that it is now time to go to bed.” The child hears it as a choice yet is reprimanded for objecting. It would be more beneficial for parents to plainly state each step:

  • “This is our last book for tonight.”
  • “It is now bedtime.”
  • “I am turning off the lights.”

It is important that parents are empathizing with their children and not projecting onto them. Just because your child tends to get whiny if he misses his naptime, the temper tantrum he’s throwing right now because his brother stole his toy is due to his anger, not fatigue, though that may be a contributing factor. In this scenario, a parent should be careful to not say, “I know you are so tired right now.” This fails to recognize the hurt and anger being felt.

Teaching children to express feelings

You can help your own child understand and articulate feelings through placards or images. Start by first showing your child a cartoonish picture illustrating an emotion and then ask the child what that person is feeling. For example, a frown would mean “sad,” a smile would mean “happy,” an open mouth would mean “surprise.”

Then, as your child becomes more adept at understanding what emotions look like, move from cartoonish pictures to actual photographs. You can find some through a simple Google search if you are stuck.

Then, you can begin to ask your child to describe personal feelings in various situations. Perhaps a child falls and scrapes a knee. As you help your child cope with the pain and confusion, ask for an explanation of those feelings.

You can add more layers to these conversations as your child matures and comprehends emotions at a deeper level. In time, you can ask for a more details, even asking the child to fill in the appropriate blanks: “I feel ___ when ___ because ____ and I want ____.”

Final thoughts

Empathy is a way of connecting with our children and other human beings. It is not necessarily about confronting and defusing temper tantrums, though it can be useful in doing so. Empathy is accepting, acknowledging and inviting emotions to be expressed — no matter how strong or unwelcome.

Our children’s thoughts and feelings matter, and if we want our children to grow up to be empathetic people, we need to model those same behaviors for them. Because the best way to teach empathy to children is to be empathetic to those children.

Posted In Children's, Health Information, Parenting

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