Supporting Parents. Fostering Change.

E – Empathy

“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


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