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Jackie: I had the worst day EVER!!

Mom thinks but does NOT say: Oh no.  This sounds bad.  Did she get in trouble with the teacher?  Did she do terribly on her spelling test? Hold on now.  I used to jump to conclusions which would only upset Jackie even more.  I need to empathize and listen.

Mom says: (gently) Tell me what happened.

Jackie: Jessica was sooo mean to me.  She told me to shut up during art class.  And, then at lunch, when I sat down next to her, she got up and moved to another table.  I asked her if she was mad at me, and she told me ‘no’ but THEN she ignored me the rest of the afternoon. She is not my friend any more.  I hate her.  I hate school!  Nobody likes me.  I have no friends. I’m never going back to school again!!

In the past Mom would have said: Why are you still friends with Jessica? She is clearly not a good friend.  I’m sick of how she treats you. I don’t want you playing with her anymore.

Now, Mom thinks before she speaks:  O.K. Take a deep breath. If you speak now, you are going to say something you regret.  Jackie is upset, but I know she can handle this.  She needs me to listen so that she can vent. I am confident that Jackie can figure this out. Stay calm.

Mom says gently: You sound really upset with Jessica.

Jackie: I am! I hate her! She is so mean.

Silence. As Mom listens intently to her daughter, she notices Jackie is beginning to settle down and communicate her feelings a bit more calmly.

Mom: I know that it makes you so sad when Jessica acts like this. And when you get really upset, you just want to give up on everything including school and all of your friends, but let’s focus on what happened to you today that is bothering you the most.

Jackie:  OK. Well mostly, I hate when Jessica has a bad day and takes it out on me.

Mom says in a calm voice: I bet. Nobody likes to be treated badly by a friend.  It hurts. What do you think is the best way for you to handle the situation with Jessica tomorrow?

Jackie:  I don’t know.  I didn’t do anything and she was STILL mean to me. There’s nothing I can do.

Mom: This isn’t the first time that this has happened with Jessica. What have you done in the past that worked when Jessica has been cranky with you?

Jackie: I usually just keep my distance from her for a day, and she gets over it.  Then, when she wants to play with me again, I‘ll tell her that I don’t like it when she takes her bad moods out on me.

Mom:  That seems like a really good plan to me.  How are you feeling now?

Jackie:  Better, Mom.  Much better.  C’mon let’s go walk the dog.

Some children are born optimists.  They are unfazed by disappointments and mistakes and welcome the opportunity to take on new challenges.  Others, well, are not.  For these kids, small problems feel insurmountable and negative outcomes are dreaded realities. Life offers all children a fair share of knocks.  When they inevitably fall down, the hope is that they have the skills to pick themselves up, brush off their knees, and continue to move forward, confident in their ability to succeed.  As parents, all we really want is for our kids to be happy and resilient.   We want to help them develop coping skills and constantly strive to find the proper balance between supporting and fixing.  On the one hand, we want to save our children from any and all pain by jumping in to amend issues as soon as they arise. On the other, we know that our children must learn to solve their own problems if they are to thrive as adults.

Jill initiated counseling at In Step because she felt terribly depleted by the constant drama and negativity with her 10 year old daughter, Jackie.  Each day Jackie came home from school miserable and upset, wanting her mother to fix her problems while simultaneously rejecting any idea that her mother suggested.   Frustrated and tired of getting pulled into a negative cycle with her daughter, Jill wondered if there was another, more effective approach to take with Jackie.  E.G.N.O.G. to the rescue.

Jill wanted a concrete method of responding to her daughter.  Try as she might to resist the vortex of Jackie’s emotions, Jill couldn’t help it.  Whenever her daughter had a problem, she felt it was her job to fix it.  And, if Jackie did not heed her sage advice, Jill became frustrated and her shrill tone fueled further upset.  In the example above, it was E.G.N.O.G. that helped her break the pattern by giving her a framework to guide the problem solving process with her daughter.


Step One:  Empathize

Let your child know that you understand and can tolerate her feelings by saying things like:

“You are really upset about this”
“I’m so sorry that this happened today”

Jill struggled with this initially because her words said “I understand” but her tone said “Not again”!  She figured out that it was better for her to say nothing than to say something with an edge to her voice.

Step Two:  Get Neutral

Listen without judgment. Calmly let your child know you are there to help by saying things like:

“Tell me what happened”.
“I’m listening”.

Part of Jill’s challenge in staying neutral was inhibiting her natural responses.  When she tried to join with Jackie by getting angry at Jessica, she unwittingly stirred the emotional pot, fueling her daughter’s overwhelming feelings. Talking slowly and calmly slowed down the escalation of Jackie’s feelings.

Step Three:  Narrow
Be as specific as possible with the nature of the particular problem by saying things like:

“When did you first start feeling this way?”
“What upset you the most about the situation?”

Jill took Jackie’s temperature throughout their interaction. She knows that there is no reasoning with a child in the heat of the moment. It was not until after Jackie had cooled down a bit that she was able to help her hone in on what was the most upsetting aspect of her day.

Step Four:   Optimize

Remind your child that there are multiple solutions to problems by saying things like:

“Can you think of ways to fix this?”
“That is one way to feel about it.  Can you think of other ways to look at this problem?”

By referring back to times when Jackie felt successful dealing with her friend’s behavior, Jill empowered her daughter to find her own solutions to her problem.

Step Five:   Get Moving

Make a plan and then let it go by saying things like:

“OK.  It sounds like you are ready to put a plan into action”.
“You have figured out how you want to handle this.  Let’s play.”

Jackie figured out her own solution to this problem with Jessica and made a plan of action for the next day.  Mom helps her let go of her bad day by suggesting a walk together.

Coping with a child’s emotional distress is challenging in so many ways.  As parents, we naturally want to save them from suffering.  Jackie’s Mom neither fixes the problem (by forbidding Jackie’s friendship with Jessica) nor negates Jackie’s feelings.  Rather, she remains neutral, and empathetic, thinking carefully before she speaks, Mom models excellent problem solving skills and communicates confidence in Jackie’s ability to cope with her own distress by using the E.G.N.O.G. approach.

Cathi Cohen, LCSW, CGP

Posted in Anger Management, Behavior Management, Communication, Parenting, Resiliency, Social Skill Development | Leave a comment

“You stink!” Carlos shouted.  “I’m always stuck on his team,” Joseph grumbled.  Patrick doesn’t know what to say when the boys are mean to him like this.  He wants to play with the neighborhood boys, but he hates that every time he kicks the ball, someone catches it.  He sulks off, red-faced and humiliated after messing up.  Usually, there are no parents present during these kick ball game.  But today, Joseph’s Dad just happens to be nearby.  “Hey, guys.  Team huddle!” he calls. The boys reluctantly gather around him. “Who saw what just happened?” he asks.  Hector says, “I did.  Carlos and Joseph pretty much told Patrick he stinks.”  “Okay, guys.  Anybody have any guesses as to how Patrick is feeling right now?” asks Joseph’s Dad. Several boys answer, “Mad!”  “Sad!”  “Embarrassed!”  “I think you guys are absolutely right.  That’s how I’d feel if someone told me I stink.  Do we want to make each other feel bad?” The whole group says, “No!”  “Let’s get back to the game, guys.  And remember that we always treat our teammates with respect.  No matter what.  Okay?”

One of your primary goals as a parent is to help your kids understand and respect the needs and feelings of others. The ability to empathize, however, is a highly complex skill. Empathy is defined as the capacity to feel and think what another feels and thinks by observing verbal and nonverbal cues.  The following list describes the behaviors of someone who can empathize.

A Person with Empathy:

  • Concentrates on what the other person is saying
  • Notices the behavior of the other person and tries to understand what is being communicated by that behavior
  • Imagines the feelings of the other person
  • Responds appropriately

Yikes!  This may seem like a pretty complicated process.  It’s no wonder that so many children (and adults) struggle with it. In Patrick’s case, Carlos and Joseph are not sensitive to the potential impact their words have on Patrick.  In order for them to do that, they need to “stand in Patrick’s shoes.”  This is called perspective-taking.  Joseph’s Dad helps the boys look at the situation through Patrick’s eyes to try to imagine how Patrick might be feeling.  This helps the boys empathize with Patrick.

Helping Children Develop Empathy
The following is a series of steps for you to help your child develop empathy.  This is one area where highlighting specific examples and modeling appropriate behavior are extremely effective.

Step One: Prompt your child to think about the feelings and reactions of others.
Ask your child to think about the needs of others. Make sure you react calmly and listen to your child’s responses to his peers. He needs to feel that his perspective is valued, even if you don’t see things exactly the same way.

Try Saying This:
“How do you think Joey felt when Ben pushed him?”
“Why do you think Mary didn’t want Jackie to play with her?”
“How do you think it would feel to be the new kid in class?”

Step Two:  Help your child develop a larger, more detailed vocabulary of feelings.
I can’t overestimate the value for children of understanding their own feelings and being able to express them in a clear, calm fashion. Kids with healthy social behaviors tend to have a solid understanding of their own feelings, which helps them tune in to others’ feelings. It isn’t necessary for you to sit down and formally define a range of feelings for your child.  Simply by demonstrating and verbalizing a variety of feelings yourself, you are role modeling the importance of understanding your own and other kids’ emotions.

You may express yourself like this:
“I find it frustrating when I talk and you don’t listen.”
“It really pushes my buttons and makes me angry when I see you treating others with disrespect.”
“I am disappointed that my class has been canceled.”

Step Three: Help your child tune in to body language and facial expressions. Learning this skill can be a lot of fun.  Help your child understand the motivations and feelings of others by observing out loud what others’ faces and bodies are saying.  Highlight the clues people give us to tell us what they are feeling.  For example, notice how red faces and loud voices show anger, or how wide-open eyes and mouths show surprise.  You might want to demonstrate and ask your child to demonstrate how facial expressions change with different feelings.

Try Saying This:
“Molly is trying to tell us something with her body right now.  What is that you think she is saying to us?”
“The teacher just separated Joey and Ben.  Why do you think he did that?  What were they feeling just then?”
“I can see by your face that you are unhappy with this decision.”

Try asking your child to “freeze action”. Ask him to remain frozen while he looks around to observe aloud what he sees.  Facial expressions and body poses indicate much about how others are feeling.

Step Four:  Encourage a sense of humor. It’s common knowledge that laughing is a healing emotion. Think about how good you feel after a long, hearty laugh.  It’s the same for kids.  But it’s often hard to maintain a sense of humor. Many things can cause stress in a child’s life, such as academic and peer pressures. You can help your child see the funny side of life. Tell jokes with them. Tell funny stories to them. And most importantly, teach your child to laugh at himself by laughing at your own foibles.  The next time you make a mistake, point it out and laugh at yourself out loud. Help your child see that mistakes are a part of life – it’s okay to make them, learn from them, and move on.

There are some kids who take the actions of others more seriously than others – these are the kids who have the most trouble with teasing and bullies. If your child is one of these children, help him notice when actions are benign rather than malevolent. Even though this won’t always be the case, it doesn’t hurt to assume there was no evil intent before jumping to conclusions.  Help your child practice laughing stuff off, and I guarantee you’ll see it result in better relationships for them.

Step Five: Teach your child to respond empathetically to others. Even if a child doesn’t clearly understand the nuances expressed by others, it’s still important that he respond as if he understands. For instance, if Sam tells Aaron that he had a fight with his brother, and Aaron doesn’t really understand what they were fighting about, it’s still important for Aaron to act as if he understands by appearing to be listening, nodding his head, and having a caring facial expression. It often happens that acting as if you understand can actually lead to understanding.  If you act as if you are confident, for instance, in time you may actually feel confident.  If you act as if you are sympathetic to someone else’s problem, in time you may actually feel sympathetic.

In this vein, teach your child to say short words that express empathy.

Short Words that Express Empathy:

  •  “Oh” (said in a disappointed tone)
  • “Uh Oh”
  • “Wow!”
  • “Oh no!”

Help your child maintain a facial expression and body stance that appears caring. Work with him to come up with a list of words and expressions that demonstrate empathetic listening. Gradually begin teaching your child to ask follow-up questions that help open up others instead of close them down. If you don’t feel comfortable teaching these skills, the next best option is to demonstrate empathy yourself.

Statements that Shut Down Communication:

  • “So?”
  •  “That’s no big deal.  That happens to me all the time.”
  •  “Why are you so upset about that?”

Questions That Open Up Others:

  •       “What’s bothering you?”
  •       “Do you want to talk about it?”
  •       “How can I help you?”
  •       “Can you tell me what happened?”

When you see your child acting as if he’s empathizing, reward him with specific praise.

Try Saying This:

“I like when I see you take care of others like that.”
“I bet Maggie feels heard when you listen to her so carefully.”
“I really feel like you are listening to me when you look at me when I’m talking to you.”

If you are really feeling creative, there are even games and exercises you can play with your child that encourage empathy and perspective-taking.  Give them a try!

Empathy Games and Exercises

Picture Viewing

Look at picture books or at ads in a magazine. Write captions to go with the expressions. Make comments about each face.

Story Reading

Read a story aloud. Stop often and discuss how the characters in a story might be feeling.

TV/Movie Watching

Watch a TV show or a movie together. Pause and discuss what the characters might be feeling and how they’re communicating their feelings.

The Hat Trick Game

Put pieces of paper with different feelings written on them inside one hat.  (Hat #1 will contain papers saying “happy,” “sad,” “scared,” “frustrated,” “excited,” “angry,” and so on.)  Put pieces of paper with tasks written on them inside another hat. (Hat #2’s papers will read “say hello to friend,” “take off your coat,” “ask a friend over to hang out,” and so on.) Ask your child to choose one “feeling” and one “task” from each hat.  The object of the game is to perform the tasks while conveying the feeling. Try and guess the feelings your child is trying to express. The goal of the game is to increase your child’s awareness of others’ feelings and for him to express feelings more clearly.  You can increase the level of difficulty by making the feelings more challenging.

The People Watching Game

Sit in a good people-watching spot with your child. Observe people going by, and say out loud together what you think people’s facial expressions and body language are communicating.  Try to make up stories about people based on their appearance. Ask questions like, “Where do you think that person is going?”  Notice the cues that let us understand how others feel.  Then wonder aloud about their motivations.  “Why do you think that child is crying?”  Highlight the clues people give us to tell us what they’re feeling.  “Notice that her face is red, her voice is loud, and her jaw is clenched.  That woman must be angry!”

The Tape Recording Game

Tape yourself with a tape recorder saying the same word repeatedly, but use a different tone of voice each time you say it.  Play it back for your child and see if he can differentiate what the feeling is behind each word.  For instance, if you choose the word stay, first say it in an angry way, then in a firm but unemotional way, then as if you are asking a question, then as if you are frustrated, and so on. This exercise is harder than it seems. Give it a try!

Empathy skills can be taught.  You will see that with empathy and an increased awareness of the feelings of others, your child will become closer to others. Children need to know that they are understood.  Take an active role in helping your child learn these necessary skills.

Cathi Cohen, LCSW, CGP


Posted in Asperger Syndrome, Aspergers, Behavior Management, Parenting | Leave a comment