“To empathize with someone is to understand what he is feeling or, more properly, to understand what you would feel like if you were in his situation.”
—Lawrence Kutner, Ph.D, “How Children Develop Empathy”
We want our children to grow into compassionate adults. We know that they must develop empathy in order for this to happen, so we are eager to help them understand other people’s perspective and experiences. Empathy is an acquired skill, and it’s a strong predictor of an individual’s success and happiness. For many of us, we find ourselves asking this question early and often: “How would it make you feel if s/he did that to you?” We ask our children to imagine how they would feel if their friend shouted in their face. We ask them to imagine how they’d feel if someone snatched a toy away from them, or talked about them behind their back. This is the model that we grew up with. It’s how we teach them to empathize, right? Our intentions are good, but we need to take a closer look at our strategy and understand that this approach we grew up with isn’t the best approach, and it doesn’t work for all children.
Developmentally speaking, children aren’t ready to engage in this line of questioning until they are around five years old, yet many parents and caregivers begin asking the question when their children are much younger. We need to consider how we can support very young children in developing empathy in a way that is appropriate for their stage of development.
As children move through preschool and into elementary school and their cognition and social intelligence advances, we must recognize that when we ask this question, we are asking them to take on another person’s experience: to feel what they are feeling, to share in their stress, to be personally invested in their well-being. This sounds like a good thing, but it actually encourages them to dismantle any emotional boundaries they may be holding. Because this method of teaching empathy asks children to not only consider another person’s emotions, but to step into their experience, highly empathic children may take on that person’s stress as well, and it can be more than they can handle. If your child is already honed in on other people’s emotions, you want to encourage them to establish emotional boundaries, not ignore them.
So… What do we do instead?
We want our children to grow into compassionate AND emotionally healthy adults who know their limits and can hold space for other’s experiences while maintaining healthy emotional boundaries. We don’t want to teach our children to absorb the emotions and stress of others. It is possible to help our children practice empathizing with others without teaching them to take on the other person’s experience as their own. The really cool thing is that you can start working with this model from a very young age– there is no need to wait until they are cognitively able to put themselves into another’s shoes. If you acknowledge your child’s experience, help them to see the other person’s experience, and offer them support in engaging in a problem solving conversation, they will begin to see how their actions affect others and develop conflict resolution skills at the same time. True empathy will follow naturally.
What does this look like?
As an example, let’s consider two preschool-aged children, Rio and Star, who want to play with the same toy. Rio has been digging in the sand with a yellow shovel and Star comes over, takes the shovel out of Rio’s hand, and carries it to the other side of the sandbox. Rio is typically an even-tempered child and does not react violently. Instead, tears well up in Rio’s eyes and wailing ensues. As the adult in this situation, you can support both children by approaching Star and saying, “It seems like you really wanted to use that shovel. You wanted to use it so much that you took it right out of Rio’s hand! Rio seems upset. Look, Rio’s crying.” By doing this, you are validating Star’s motives while still connecting the act of taking the shovel to Rio’s emotions.
For some children, this will be enough to spark genuine concern. Star might just walk over and ask, “Rio, are you okay?” Most of the time, though, our children need a little more support. As the caring adult in this situation, you could say to Star, “Rio is crying. Let’s go check in and see if there’s anything we can do to help.” The next step is to actually walk with your child and encourage them to talk to their friend. If they seem reluctant, offer them the words, “Rio, we came to check on you. Star, you could say, ‘Rio, are you okay?’” Another good phrase to offer is, “Is there anything I can do to help you feel better?” Keep in mind that your role in this situation is that of facilitator. You don’t need to force your child to apologize to their friend, just serve as the support they need to resolve their conflict, offering the words or potential resolutions to the problem as needed.
Most children actually do care about their family and peers, but they struggle to connect to another’s experience when wrapped up in their own emotions. What you are doing when you use this strategy is connecting with them in their emotional state and helping them reconnect with logic. You are helping them utilize more of the brain and helping them build the skills they need to be able to do this on their own. This is essential both for conflict resolution and the development of empathy; you simply cannot empathize or collaborate with another person if you can’t untangle yourself from your emotions.
If you’re interested in learning more about helping your child integrate emotion and logic and utilize their whole brain, check out The Whole Brain Child, by Dan Siegel and Tina Bryson.* It’s an easy read with loads of good information and easy to implement strategies.
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