Developing Empathy in Kids Using Behavioral Skills Training
If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.
– Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
I plopped down with a deep exhale after trying to negotiate with my 18-month-old who was currently flailing his limbs about while howling on the carpet. The foam couch cushion scrunched beneath me like a marshmallow under a hydraulic press. My offer of a piece of toast rather than the whole slice of bread had been rejected. I was weary of the back and forth, trying to balance what I thought he wanted with what I was comfortable with. A defeated sigh was all I could muster at that moment.
“Mom, what’s wrong?” a somber voice piped up. My perceptive 3-year-old shuffled over to put a hand on my shoulder. I was perplexed that she had noticed my mood and even matched it in her voice. Her look of concern was heartening. She sat next to me and put a blanket over our laps. I voiced my frustrations over not always understanding what her brother wants. Her empathy left me feeling better prepared to handle the emotional rollercoaster of the 18-month-old.
I was proud of my daughter at that moment, though sadly many people (adults included!) seem to lack this crucial skill. Much of today’s news and media highlights people’s inability to take another’s perspective and relate to their emotional experiences.
Since this skill may be on the decline, the importance of teaching this skill to our children is vital. Research has been expanding on how best to do just that. Two Australian researchers examined 19 studies on empathy training in a comprehensive metanalysis. They found the programs with the largest effects focused on three key components:
- Understanding the Emotions of Others
- Feeling the Emotions Others are Feeling
- Commenting Accurately on the Emotions
They found that the most effective ways to increase these skills were to model, instruct, practice, and give feedback.
Parents need to evaluate their own emotional intelligence and be aware of the behavior they’re modeling. Children are keenly perceptive to how those around them handle conflict.
Recently, I observed a mother watching an intense scene from a Disney movie with her 4-year old. The little girl gave a little squeal and covered her face with a blanket, voicing how frightened she was. The parent responded frankly, “You’re not scared! This isn’t even scary!” If a parent dismisses someone else’s pain by saying, “you’re overreacting” or “don’t be so dramatic,” the child will likely follow suit when he encounters someone else’s distress.
Take time to label and describe your own emotions and physiological state, narrating when you have shared in other’s joy or pain. When my toddler is having a meltdown, I can try to reason with him that the blue cup is just as functional as the green cup. However, nobody in that state is ready to think rationally. Instead, I’ll acknowledge his feelings and try to see from his perspective. “You seem upset. You really wanted the green cup, didn’t you? You were mad that I gave you blue. That is so frustrating! I really wish the green cup was clean too.” This models recognizing and articulating the emotions of others, rather than trying to dismiss, deny, or change them.
Take opportunities to give explicit emotional instruction. A series of studies found differences in empathy according to how parents disciplined their children. Parents who quickly punished and reprimanded the child for her wrong behavior left no room for perspective-taking. Parents who were more authoritative took time to point out how the child’s actions had affected those around her.
Parents should instruct their children in recognizing emotions in others frequently, especially when the emotions are a result of the child’s actions.
This sophisticated skill is difficult for adults to master, let alone children. An 18-month-old is learning this skill at a different pace than a 3-year-old and that’s ok. There likely will be times when a child seems to take pleasure in the pain of others, and this can be normal as they continue to mature. The part of the brain related to perspective-taking is still developing throughout the early years. Don’t be discouraged, just practice, practice, practice. Try discussing the emotions of book and television characters and take turns making and labeling different facial expressions.
Be especially proactive when your child expresses negative emotions. It’s often when children are at their worst that we can teach them the most.
Showing empathy for others will get more natural as parents give feedback on their child’s actions. When my 3-year-old sat and shared in my solemn state, I was quick to let her know how much it meant to me that she had noticed my feelings. If your child joins in his friend’s tears over a passing family pet or celebrates in someone else’s soccer goal, acknowledge it.
When a child helps or hurts another person, ask your child what she thinks the other person is feeling. Guide them to the appropriate response and give encouragement. Be clear and warm about how their actions affected others.
Helping a child understand, feel, and communicate about the emotions of others may not feel as intuitive as practicing the ABCs. However, both aspects of a child’s development are important. As the prominent researcher on emotional intelligence Daniel Goleman said, “If your emotional abilities aren’t in hand… if you can’t have empathy and have effective relationships, then no matter how smart you are, you are not going to get very far.” When parents model, instruct, and practice empathy with feedback, children will indeed go far.
Tait, V. (2019). Developing Empathy in Kids Using Behavioral Skills Training. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 30, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/developing-empathy-in-kids-using-behavioral-skills-training/