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Teaching Empathy: How to Change Kids’ “Me” Focus

Not long ago, I watched my friend’s daughter as she carried her baby doll. Her chubby toddler arms wrapped around the doll lovingly and she patted its back while cooing soft words. Her mom encouraged her and, without consciously knowing she was doing this, gave her daughter proper feedback by saying, “Aww, you’re giving your baby some love.” Soon, in true toddler fashion, the doll was unceremoniously dumped on its plastic head. My friend once again provided feedback and said, “Oops, your baby has an owie, give her a kiss.” 

These are the little lessons that parents unknowingly weave into their young ones’ daily lives. These are the building blocks of empathy. And these are lessons my son never learned. 

When the Critical Years Are Broken
My son lived with various members of his biological family until he was five and a half. Though I know his birth family—especially his mother—tried hard, his early development was fractured at best. Drugs, abuse, and neglect ripped gaping holes in the fabric of my son’s early years. Instead of learning to trust that adults would help him if he was hurt or sad, he learned he was usually ignored or yelled at. Instead of learning the most basic lessons of empathy, my son saw adults who interacted with anger, disdain, and disrespect. 

I first met my son after he spent five years bouncing around in foster care. Though he was blessed with several wonderful foster homes, the inconsistency of those years worsened his ability to be empathetic. 

Today, my twelve-year-old son—though he has a beautiful and kind spirit—has extremely limited capacity for empathy. On the playground, when he sees a friend who is hurt, he’ll just continue playing whatever game he’s involved in. He seems to have little to no understanding about how his words and actions can hurt others, though he’s acutely aware of how hurtful others can be to him. If I’m upset for some reason, my son is more likely to ask me to buy him a Slurpee than he is to give me a hug. He also has difficulty reading expressions or hearing the emotion and inflection in others’ words. His lack of empathy and understanding affects his friendships and it hinders his ability to make wise choices. 

Teaching Early Lessons Later in Life
By nature, all kids tend to be a little me-focused. Empathy—the ability to recognize or predict how others might be feeling—isn’t something that comes naturally to children. It’s taught by a million little lessons and modeled by emotionally healthy parents. Children will be extremely empathetic at times, especially when they’re faced with a familiar scenario. Other times, they’re likely to be self-absorbed and not consider others’ feelings. It’s the natural ebb and flow of the learning process. With time, examples, mistakes, corrections, and rewards, empathy will become second nature. 

By my son’s age, most kids are beginning to see the world with a larger scope; they begin to view others with a greater focus and, subsequently, their ability to empathize is greater. While all children develop at a different pace and rhythm, my son is functioning at an extreme emotional deficit. We’re playing a game of catch-up; he may be twelve, but we have to delve back down into the lessons he should have learned at a young age. 

The Benefits of Regression
While there is such a thing as regression therapy, it’s not a method I’ve personally bought into. However, my son seems to know naturally what he needs at times. He’s gone through several regressive phases since he’s been home; they can be difficult, but they help him fill in some of the lessons he missed. In fact, his regressive behaviors and phases are often good platforms for teaching empathy. 

For example, while my son now exhibits very appropriate and healthy affection, this wasn’t always the case. When he went through a few months of being aggressively and forcibly (sometimes painfully) affectionate with me, I took the opportunity to tell him how it made me feel. I taught him to pay attention to what I’m doing before slamming into me with the force of a Mack truck. (Have you ever had a seventy-two-pound child ram into you from behind while you’re elbow deep in dishwater? Sure it’s a hug and that’s sweet, but ribs crashing into a kitchen counter top? That hurts.) And, until he got the hang of it, I taught him to ask for a hug instead of forcing it. Little lessons, certainly, but they helped him to understand that I have feelings, too. 

Feedback and Questions
Teaching empathy isn’t as simple as telling your child to be aware of others’ feelings, giving him a few “homework” assignments on the subject, and then hoping it’s sunk in. Children learn empathy in bits and pieces. 

As my son falters with empathy—in social situations, with family, even with our pets—we take the situation at hand, break it down piece by piece, and try to figure out where things went off track. We often use a behavior-mapping chart so he can take a very abstract situation and look at in a concrete, visual way. 

I also try to give my son feedback on his own body language. “Your arms are crossed and your forehead is wrinkled ... you’re feeling angry.” Not only does the feedback give him the opportunity to talk about his feelings, it helps him to absorb how body language can give clues. When I’m talking to him, I often have him look at my face and tell me what he thinks I’m feeling. And his therapist has a chart of facial expressions that helps him pinpoint his and others’ feelings. 

Asking him how others might be feeling forces my son to stop and think about other people’s emotions, when he otherwise would ignore them.

Glimmers of Empathy
My son has a long way to go with empathy. But I see glimmers of hope, little actions that prove he has the ability to be very empathetic. He may never fully catch up with kids his age; after all, most of them haven’t endured the things he has. But his warm and caring heart, his resilience, and his never-say-quit attitude will carry him through.

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