Mending bodies and feelings: another empathy building approach 


Often times when we help children develop empathy it is in our proactive efforts (labeling feelings, modeling empathy with our children and others, etc.). Many people forget that empathy teaching can also be responsive (in response to a specific behaviors). Unfortunately, during many behavioral challenges, we are usually too busy reacting in a negative and punitive way (yelling, sending everybody to time out, taking away toys, etc.). Just to clarify, I am not saying there is anything wrong with consequences. Logical consequences are important in helping children increase age appropriate positive behaviors. Our consequences, however, can be more intentional, especially when we keep “empathy development” in mind. 

Remember that any conflict occurring between a child and another person (or pet!) is an OPPORTUNITY to teach empathy. 
Ask TWO questions and engage in the comforting process for each. 

1) “Was the other person’s BODY hurt?” This could be from a hit, kick, bite, thrown object, or even an unintentional hurt occurring from the conflict somehow. 

If so, address this with the child. “How would you like to help your sister’s arm feel better? Look at her face. She is sad and crying and her arm is very red. That must have really hurt her.” If the child cannot think of anything, offer ideas. “Let’s go get her some ice. I will let you make the ice pack. Do you think she needs a bandage too?” 

This allows the child to slow down and help mend the physical hurt instead of simply being forced to rattle off, “I’m sorry.”

2) “Were the person’s feelings hurt?” This is almost always a yes in behavioral and social concerns that involve another person. With young children I use feelings visuals to help them think about how the other person is feeling. You can also have the child look at the other person’s face or ask the other person how he or she is feeling and say that to the person who hurt him or her. Next ask the child what they would like to do to help them feel better and make sure the hurt person is in agreement. For example, a child who just hit another child may say, “I will give her a hug to make her feel better,” and the hurt child may not want or be comfortable with this. Once something is agreed upon, support the child in the follow through. I have had children make feel happy again cards, share toys, give stickers, and even sing very heartfelt songs to the hurt individual(s). If the child is way off base in what they think would help the other person, offer examples or just ask the other person what would help them feel less sad, mad, afraid, etc. 
Cheers to more empathy building this new year! 

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