Teaching Children Empathy

Teaching Children EmpathyI am so excited to welcome this guest post by Carol Sepulveda, MSW, LCSW-S. I have known her for some time now and she is a very special lady, helping kids and families everyday. Enjoy!

I have a passion for books and for as long as I can remember I’ve been particularly interested in autobiographies, but not just any autobiography, I’m fascinated by people who have inspiring stories to tell.  I love to read about persons who have lived life’s difficulties and found a way to triumph over their problems.  I enjoy reading about the man who is a recovered alcoholic and works to support a treatment center.  I’m intrigued by the woman, who after years of abuse creates a foundation of hope by opening a counseling center for teenage girls.

These stories and others like them resonate in my core as I identify with what the author’s have to say and vicariously experience their pain and triumph.  Many of us have either been wounded or know someone who is.  We have our own stories to tell and we’d like to share them with someone who will listen and understand.  If we’re fortunate we have that special someone who gets us, if we’re really blessed we’ll seize the opportunity to become one of those persons who through our pain helps others.

Because we’ve experienced emotional pain, we can either identify or relate to others or we can avoid and deny.  I often tell my supervisees that the best counselors are those who have received counseling.  I believe that those persons who have dealt with their own emotional problems are better at empathizing with their clients.  They are better listeners; they listen with their ears and their eyes, they listen with their heart.

By considering what a person feels you confirm the value of that person.  Children become caring and loving individuals when their parents empathize with them.  Research indicates that child neglect is associated with a lack of their parent’s emotional empathy.  A child learns empathy when she sees her mother hug a friend in distress.  He learns empathy when he sees his dad help a neighbor.  He learns empathy when his parents understand what he feels.  A lack of empathy can result in antisocial behaviors and many persons who are addicted seem to have impaired empathy.

So how do you acknowledge or consider someone’s feelings?  How do you let your child know that you really understand?  Well it’s a simple approach really, something that social workers and psychotherapists have always done.  We reflect the feeling.

  • Try not to react, instead be slow to respond.
  • Don’t ask questions, a question indicates you don’t understand.
  • Look into your child’s eyes and try to figure out what he might be feeling.  Is he frustrated, angry hurt or disappointed.  If you get it wrong don’t worry they’ll let you know.
  • Become a mirror, a reflection of your child and state the feeling.  “Last night I scared you.”  “You’re so disappointed, you really wanted that position.”  “You’re sad that the boys didn’t let you play.”  “You’re confused and scared.  You didn’t think I’d do that again.”
  • After you reflect the feeling STOP and allow your child to share (or not) whatever he has to share.

Your child will most likely feel a sense of relief when he knows that you understand.  No longer does he have to live in loneliness and isolation.  You see you’ve just given him permission to feel what he feels.  You’ve also given him an opportunity to open up and share his feelings with you.   He knows you get him.

Carol Sepulveda is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Registered Play Therapist. She is an independent practitioner in Kingwood, TX. She specializes in children particularly Children of Alcoholics and Adult Children of Alcoholics. Carol Sepulveda is author of Papa Get Help, A Story of Hope for Children of Alcoholics. Carol is a parent education facilitator trained in a variety of parenting program. See Carol’s articles in Recovery Today and her research article Child Teacher Relationship Training (Sepulveda, Garza and Morrison, February 2011), International Journal of Play Therapy, www.carolsepulveda.com.

Author: Kim Peterson, MA, LPC-S, RPT

Kim is a Licensed Professional Counselor, Clinical Supervisor, and Registered Play Therapist in Dallas, Texas.

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