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I Hurt Because You Hurt – Teaching Kids Empathy

Our progress will only go as far as our empathy will take us.

– Matt Chandler

My five-year old and my 20-month old are finally getting to the age where they can kind of play together. Watching them play in the sandbox side-by-side or chase each other down the hall is the ultimate mom joy right now. The more they play together though, the more conflict they have. Such is life. How they learn to deal with their conflict as siblings will set the stage for how they handle it as they go out into the world.

I’m continually having a conversation with my oldest right now when his little sister is crying and he’s defensive, that goes like this.

“Look at her face. Tell me what she is feeling.”

Head hung low and a pout on his lips, “Saaaad.”

“Yes, she is feeling sad. Why do you think she’s feeling sad?”

Big sigh, “Because she wanted the ball and I took it.”

“Yes, I think you’re right. She’s sad because you took the ball. What should we do now?”

I don’t typically care very much about the wrong-doing, if there really even was any–she’s a one-year old and has a very loose interpretation of injustice. How they resolve it doesn’t matter much either, honestly. What I am trying to help them develop is their ability to empathize with others.

Stephen Covey, in his best-selling book The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People wrote, “Next to physical survival, the greatest need of a human being is psychological survival–to be understood, to be affirmed, to be validated, to be appreciated.” When we are deprived of these psychological needs, he compares it to feeling like we are without air. We can’t start to resolve a conflict until we all have air to breath.

We wouldn’t stand over someone who is choking and tell them all the ways they screwed up by not chewing well enough, or blaming them for cutting their food in too big of bites, or telling them they aren’t really choking, that they’re just being dramatic. No, no reasonable person would do that. They would do the heimlich and try to get that person breathing again before they even think about pointing fingers or assigning blame. It’s the same in conflict. We can’t get anywhere until we listen empathetically.

What Empathy Is Not

Empathy is not agreement. Empathy is not sympathy (feeling sorry for someone). Empathy does not require having had any kind of similar experience. Empathy isn’t a gene only certain people have. In fact, some studies show that only 2% of the population truly lack the ability to empathize. It does come more naturally for some than others, though. If you’re dealing with a child or teenager who doesn’t seem to come by empathy easily, don’t fret. It can be learned. People who empathize well tend to have better relationships, which lends to leading a happier more fulfilled life, so the work is definitely worth it.  

What Empathy Is

Back in November, I was feeling disheartened over the outcome of our recent presidential election. While most in my circle were busy offering ever helpful advice to those in my shoes, like “Suck it up buttercup,” a friend of mine sent me a text message that simply read, “While you and I don’t agree on everything, I want you to know, I hurt because you hurt.” That’s empathy. We hurt when others hurt. It really doesn’t matter why someone is hurting. When we have empathy, specifically what is called affective or emotional empathy, we hurt simply because someone we care about is hurting. Our reactions, then, can come from a place of compassion rather than defensiveness.   

Sometimes empathy doesn’t come so naturally. We have to cognitively think through, “What would it feel like to be in their shoes?” We can begin to empathize by listening to someone else without trying to persuade them of anything, or change their minds, without formulating our response as they talk. Simply listening and truly trying to understand.

But ultimately, even if we can’t understand, it’s important to acknowledge that it doesn’t mean their feelings aren’t valid. The existence of someone else’s pain does not depend upon your acknowledgement, belief, or understanding of it. Sometimes, the validation that we recognize their pain is real, is the best we can offer. To say, I see you are in pain and I am sorry you are hurting, may be enough in many circumstances.  

Exercises to Encourage Empathy

With our kids, we can do lots of exercises to help them build both their emotional and cognitive empathizing skills.

Take a Walk in Someone Else’s Shoes

As you watch tv, talk about friends from school, or read books together, pause regularly and ask “I wonder what it would feel like to be so-and-so right about now. What do you think she’s thinking? How would you feel if that happened to you?”

Mirror Feelings

With your toddlers, you can start this conversation by pointing out when their siblings, friends, or tv characters have certain feelings by mirroring the look on their face and their tone. “Brother is feeling mad right now, he doesn’t like when you rip his papers. He is mad, mad.” Or, “Elmo is sad. Why is Elmo so sad? Ohhhh, Cookie Monster ate all the cookies. That might make me sad too.” Harvy Karp, M.D. uses what he calls Toddler-Ese to communicate with little ones when they are upset, by using short repetitive phrases that mirror the child’s tone and gestures. “You are mad, mad, mad! You want candy now!” This helps them to feel validated and understood, giving them their oxygen, before trying to get your message to them, “We can’t have candy now. Candy will make you feel sick, sick, sick.”

Read, Read, and Read Some More

Reading is shown to be one of the best ways to build empathy, especially good stories with characters who go through struggles. Read to your children every day if you can or check out books on CD from the library and listen to them in the car together, pause every now and then to talk about what the characters are going through and what it would be like to be in their shoes. For ideas, visit the online Empathy Library, an online catalog of books and films that inspire empathy. They have 60 book recommendations listed for kids 3-7!

Explore the Cultural Arts Scene

Historical museums, paintings, and music can all stir up powerful emotions. Bring your children to the Dallas Holocaust Museum or the African American Museum (free admission). Look at paintings and sculptures in the Dallas Museum of Art (free admission) and try to imagine what the painter was feeling. With older kids, google the artist’s bio and see if what you learn about their life changes the way you interpret their art. Listen to music from different cultures and time periods. 

Writing or Performing

Have your kids make up or act out stories. Give them prompts and see what they come up with. For example, you could set the scene, “You’re at the playground and you see a little girl crying under the slide.” Or “You’re an astronaut and you just landed on another planet. You’re walking out of the spaceship and you see three aliens….” My son and I play a riveting game of “What’s that Smell?” when we pass by a factory on the way to his school with smelly fumes. We take turns guessing where the smell is coming from being as silly as we can. I’m not sure this prompt plays into empathy necessarily, but it certainly makes us laugh and gets us thinking about lots of different ways to look at one problem.       

Serve and See the World

Take your kids out of their bubble. Serve in underprivileged areas together. If you live in the city, spend some time in the country. If you’re from the country, take trips to the city. Spend time in Highland Park and Fair Park. Sponsor a child through a program like Compassion International and read and write letters to them with your children. Travel to different parts of the country or world and get to know the locals and how they live. If you can’t travel, look for documentaries or movies set in other cultures or get to know local refugees or immigrants. When the inevitable, “why” questions come up, answer honestly and open a dialogue. Be sure to not only look at ways others have it worse than you, but look for and point out the strengths about people that live differently than you. Try to find two take aways from these interactions, how it has made you grateful for something in your own life (ex. clean, running water) and something we could learn from or work into our own life more (ex. learning to live off the land). 

Keep in mind that I am not a psychologist, just a mom and avid reader advocating for a kinder future for our children. But child psychologists like Michelle Borba agree that empathy is the most important skill you can teach your kids.

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