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.

Guest Post: All About Psycho-Social Rehabilitation (PSR)!

All About Psycho-Social RehabilitationHello from the Potato State! My name is Stacey and I am co-runner of a little Idaho blog called: A PSR Gathering. I am here today to give a little insight on what we do!

In Idaho we have an awesome service offered to children and adults called PSR or Psycho-Social Rehabilitation. PSR is not available to everyone (it is a Medicaid only service and not in every state) which examples the blank stares I often get when I tell people what I do. Katie and I work with children (ages 4-19 is the general range of clients) but, adult services are available! Clients who qualify for PSR have been diagnosed with a Serious Emotional Disturbance (SED) for children, or a Severe and Persistent Mental Disorder (SPMD) for adults. I am going to keep this simple and sweet for you today, if you have a questions feel free to ask!


Have a Bachelors degree (in Social Services, Early Childhood Education, Sociology, Social Work, Psychology, and the like)? You can do PSR! You will have to gain a USPRA certification though, if you wish to work in the state of Idaho. Some states even require a master’s degree.

About us:

Katie (on the left): I graduated with a BAS in Child Care and Development from Boise State University in 2009. I have lived in Boise the majority of my life, am married with two dogs and with what spare time I can find love to travel, run, camp and read.  I have worked with kids for about 15 years in many different ways, from camp counselor to tutor to Pre-school teacher! I have been working as a PSR Specialist for about two and a half years now, and am just feeling like I’m getting the hang of it!

Stacey (on the right): I graduated from Boise State University in 2010, with my B.F.A in Drawing and studies in Psychology and Art Therapy. My family moved us to Boise when I was 10 and we have been here ever since. I just bought a house a street over from my childhood home and live there with my boyfriend of many years and our bully breed pup, Penny. I have too many interests to list but the tops are: creating, motorcycles, bargain hunting and kicking back! I have always had a passion for helping others, which has given me the opportunity to work in an array of jobs.  From working with animals, to slinging coffee or advising college students… I’ve done it all! I have been a PSR specialist for going on two years and can’t wait to see where it takes me.

What do we do as PSR workers?

PSR is individual skill based training, such as anger management, social skills emotions recognition, etc.

When do we work?

Each client qualifies for about 4-5 hours per week. We work in the community so our hours are outside of school hours–afternoons, night and weekends. As you can imagine we love summer for its flexibility!

So…an office? School?…where do you work?

PSR is a community-based position, no office (unless your car counts–I haven’t used my trunk for purposes other than hauling around ‘PSR’ tools for 2 years now-ha!). We work in the homes or take them out into the community to work. Libraries, malls, Barnes and Noble, coffee shops, parks–you get the idea.


Our goal(s) in PSR are simple. When a client comes into PSR a treatment plan is designed that consists of measurable and behaviorally specific objectives. PSR is there to build skills to better communicate, interact within society, build relationships, handle situations and overall be the best kiddos they can be!


We do an array of activities with clients (based on age, understanding and needs). Being out in the community and in the homes, we get a good glimpse on what our clients are like when their ‘guard’ is down, which lends to a lot of  ‘real life training.’ We also get to be silly kids our selves by using play and art to teach our clients new skills! Check http://www.psrideaweb.com/for awesome activity ideas!

PSR Gathering

Describing Your Feeling- Printable Guided Imagery Worksheet

When I was an intern, my supervisor shared a guided imagery worksheet with me that I loved, but have not been able to find since. So, I have created my own similar worksheet, with a few new sections.

You can print your own copy of Describe Your Feeling PDF, but below is an example of the questions from part 1.

There are several things I love about this worksheet:

  • Adults, teens, and children enjoy this activity.
  • Clients choose which feeling they would like to work with- anger, depression, jealousy, etc. and can use it multiple times to cover more than one feeling.
  • This worksheet can also be an art therapy activity if wanted/appropriate.
  • Clients gain a sense of control over their feeling.
  • Clients can use this imagery outside of the therapy office anytime.
  • The therapist can process the answers to these questions with the client in as much detail as desired. For example, ask them why they chose a certain animal, or what it feels like for them when they hear the sounds they talk about in part 2.


Which feeling would you like to describe? _________________________________________________

If your feeling had a shape, what would it be?

If your feeling had a color, what color would it be?

If your feeling had a texture, what would that feel like? (rough, soft, sticky, etc…)

If your feeling had a sound, what would it sound like?

If your feeling was a weather condition, what would it be? (stormy, sunny, cold, windy, etc.)

If your feeling had a size, how would you describe that size?

If your feeling had a place in your body, where would it be?

If your feeling were an animal, what kind of animal would it be?

If your feeling could say something, what would it say?

If you could talk to your feeling, what would you say?

Here is a recent example (Click on the picture for a larger view). Like I mentioned above, you can also inject some art therapy with this worksheet by having the client draw their feeling as described. This example was just using crayon, but you can use paint, sponges for texture, glitter, etc.


Own Your Feelings With “I” Statements

background freedigitalphotos.netThis morning I was loading my toddler into the car and he was crying over not getting his way (shocking, right?). I caught myself after saying “You make mommy feel sad when you cry like that.

Can you figure out why I didn’t like how I said that?

What’s wrong with this statement?

I believe words can be very powerful, especially when we use them on a regular basis. When I told my son that he MAKES ME FEEL sad, I am implying he has some sort of control over my feelings. In a way, it’s placing blame on him for his mom’s feelings. Bad news!

What should I have said?

Benefits of Using I-Statements in Communication

  • Practicing and Teaching Boundaries: Healthy boundaries means that I own my own thoughts and feelings. Other people do not control my thoughts and feelings and I don’t control the thoughts and feelings of others. This is an important and valuable lesson for my kids, as welll as maintaining my own psychological health. Boundaries are so important I am working on a blog post devoted to this very topic.
  • Improves communication and conflict resolution: Using I-statements keeps the person you are communicating with from being on the defense. You will be better able to resolve conflict using I-statements, rather than stating “you did this” and “you did that!”
  • Great for all ages and communication levels. You can use this communication technique with anyone and any age. The example I gave above involved communication with my toddler and you can’t get any more basic that that!
How To Use I-Statements:

Start by identifying your feelings- mad, sad, frustrated, etc.

I feel …

State the reason you feel this way or what happened that led you to those feelings.

When …

Try to identify the reason you the person’s actions led to those feelings for you.


Let the person know what you want instead.

I would like…


Your spouse snaps at you during dinner and it really hurt your feelings. Here’s an I-statement to use with this scenario:

I feel hurt

When you snap at me like that

Because I worked hard to cook this nice dinner for us.

I would like you to use nicer words and tone with me, and to know if something happened today that has led you to be in a bad mood.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Just like anything else, the more you practice I-statements, the better you will become at this very effective communication tool. Use this technique with your friends, family, spouse, and kids. You can also make learning fun with a game!

Use your I’s is one of my favorite therapeutic games. I play this with my younger clients and families and I also recommend this game for parents to play with their kids. You can buy it online at Childtherapytoys.com. The players draw from a stack of cards with various scenarious that challenges the player to identify how they would feel in that scenario and turn it into an I statement. It is a great tool for teaching 1. Feeling identification, 2. Turning these feelings goointo an I statement, and 3. Role playing to practice the communication tool.

More good references on this subject:




So, go out and use your I’s today! 🙂

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Which Feelings Will You Choose To Surf This Week?

Feelings are much like waves. We can’t stop them from coming, but we can choose which one to surf.
Author Unknown

I came across this quote on Pinterest this week. Not only is it a great quote, but so appropriate for summer! It got me to thinking about how many feelings, and variations of feelings, we have in a given day. Just today, I have felt excited, nervous, frustrated, thankful,  busy, bored, optimistic, and worried. These are just a few that I can recall at the moment. You may be wondering how someone could have all these feelings in one day!! It surprises me too when I see it written down. Take a moment yourself and think of all the feelings you have had from the start of your day to the end of your day. You may be surprised how many emotions you experience.

Emotions really are like waves! They come and go and there is not much we can do to control them. However, like the quote says, we can choose which ones we will surf. We can decide which emotions we are going to allow to stay with us for a period time.

And just like the sport of surfing, this kind of self-control takes practice. Learning to be self-aware and seek control over our thoughts and emotions can be work, but does get easier. If you find yourself surfing a wave of emotions that are bringing you down, bring this visual image of waves to your mind. Think about your feelings as waves and decide which ones you want to surf and which ones you don’t. If you don’t see any good feelings flowing in, try some visual imagery of the waves and name some of them “happy,” “content,” “relaxed,” and so on. Claim some of those positive waves for yourself and imagine yourself surfing the wave of contentment or joy or peace… you choose!

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Kids Feel “Out of Control” When Angry and How We Can Help

Emotions can be very strong and feel overwhelming at times, and this is especially true for children. Depending on their developmental level, they may not fully understand what the feeling is, what it is called, why they feel that way or what caused it, and especially how to handle the feelings. It’s up to us as adults to recognize this emotional immaturity and help them to grow.

About a month ago, I was introduced to The Home Teacher’s series of anger management activities called “Don’t Be An Angry Bird.” These are brilliant exercises that incorporate the popular Angry Bird characters into teaching kids about types of anger and various coping skills. They are so fun. All I had to do was hang a picture of the various angry birds up in my room and the curious kids actually initiated the discussion!

Here is a picture of the different types of angry birds.

Side note: For the “Angry Eyes” Bird, I have the kids show me their angry eyes and I show them mine. We have a good laugh at one another! 🙂

So, of all these different types of “birds,” which one would you choose to represent your anger? Which one do you think kids choose most to describe their anger? I have done this activity with at least 10 kids and 9 have chosen the BODY OUT OF CONTROL bird to describe how they perceive themselves when they are angry. I find this fascinating and insightful!

This activity has reinforced the idea that kids are still very new to the big world of feelings. Emotions can be strong and often overwhelming, and for little ones, it’s magnified. Depending on their developmental level, they may not fully understand what the feeling is, what it is called, why they feel that way or what caused it, and especially how to handle the feelings.

The “terrible two’s” is a prime example of what it looks like when feelings are new and the body feels out of control. A toddler will scream, stomp their feel, stiffen their body, roll around on the ground, and run around the room. It’s obvious they are feeling out of control. Consider this the starting point in a child’s emotional development. Over time, they begin to recognize the feelings and learn some self-control. However, it’s not until adulthood (hopefully) that they are fully mature in this emotional development.

So how can we help our kids in their path to emotional maturity?

  1. Validate the child’s feelings. Let them know their feelings are normal and acceptable (even if their current expression of those emotions is not).
  2. Give their feelings a name. Anytime you have an opportunity, label the feelings you observe in the child and help them to label their feelings as well.
  3. Encourage them to verbalize their feelings out loud with I-statements (I’m mad, sad, etc…).
  4. Teach them appropriate coping skills. Keep in mind that modeling these skills is the best teaching tool!!

I will end with a favorite quote from Yoda for all the Littles out there struggling with these Great Big Feelings!

“Control, Control, You must learn control!”

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Books by Topic for Children, Parents, and Mental Health Professionals

With this being a fairly new website, I have plenty of plans to upgrade and make it even more informative and fun! I recently updated the Books Section, under the Links, Books, and Other Tools tab of this site. Using my Goodreads account, you can brouse my selections by topic or by the reader (adult, child, or professional). You can then read summaries and reviews of the books. As always, please forward any suggestions my way and check back regularly as new books are added each week!


Abuse and Neglect


Adoption and Foster Care










Grief and Loss


Play Therapy



Teen Girl Issues





Art Therapy: Painting Your Body In Emotion

Painting emotions is a great way to learn more about where and how a person experiences their feelings. I learned this activity from a colleague, and I wish I knew the original source so I could credit them here. This is a fairly popular activity among therapists, which is a testament to how effective it is. It’s great for all ages, but I have used it only with children and teens so far.

You don’t have to be a therapist though. This is a wonderful tool for parents to use when talking with their kids about feelings. Whether you want to have a general discussion, or you want them to express feelings they may have over a certain event or problem (such as changing schools or divorce), this activity is appropriate.

I’m going to share some pictures of this activity done in previous sessions. No identifying information about the painters, such as gender, age, or names, will be shared in order to protect confidentiality.

What You Need:

Large construction paper

Cut-out of body (or draw one- I show examples of both)

Paint (at least 4 colors)

Paint brushes (although finger painting would work too)

Glue or glue stick

Pen or marker


Glue the body onto the construction paper.


Choose the feelings you want represented (Happy, Sad, Angry, Worried, Fearul, Nervous, etc.) and paint the part of the body that feeling is most often expressed. Talk about a time when you felt that feeling as well. Here are some examples to help with the explanation. Notice how the key to the colors is written on the side to reference later.

This child indicated their happy feeling was in their heart. They painted the face blue because they cry when they are sad. Notice they painted their legs red (anger) and explained this was because they want to kick things when they are angry. Purple is for nervous because their hands get sweaty.

The pre-teen painting this body has symptoms of ADHD and struggle with attention. They requested to include “distracted” as a feeling and painted their face “distracted” because they claimed to have trouble keeping their mind focused. Theypainted their hands red because they want to hit things when angry.

This child painted red for angry and covered their head, one hand (for hitting), and heart. Needless to say this is a child with a lot of anger. Black represented scared and blue represented sad.

Like other therapeutic activities, a lot of the value is in the discussion, as well as the activity itself. I always tell them that they can paint a feeling, and if they choose not to share more about why they painted that feeling where they did, they don’t have to. This allows them the opportunity to express feelings within themselves, even if they are not comfortable sharing more.

Have you tried this activity? If so, what was your experience?

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Using Easter Eggs to Learn About Feelings

I am so excited about the Easter holiday next weekend, getting to color eggs and set up a hunt for my toddler for the first time! One great thing about being a parent is getting to do all the fun stuff we did as kids, but I think this is even better! Of course, I am always thinking of the holiday and how to incorporate the themes into fun feeling-related activities for the kids. Although my little guy is still too young this year, I hope you find these to be something you can do in your home!

Coloring Your Feelings

What you need:

Hard boiled eggs

Easter egg dye

  1. Choose 3-5 feelings. I suggest using Happy, Sad, and Mad as your first three. Other feelings to choose from are Excited, Silly, Scared, Shy, Distracted, Frustrated, and Anxious.
  2. Have your child choose a dye color to match each feeling.
  3. Dip the egg in the dye and have them talk about that feeling while it is getting colored.
  4. Ask questions like:

Tell me about a time when you felt _______.

What or who sometimes makes you feel ______.

When you feel ______, what does it feel like in your body? Examples are face gets hot, heart races, etc.

When you feel _____, how can you calm yourself down?

This is a fun way to bring up feelings with your kids. Depending on their age, it may help them learn the names of feelings, recognize that all feelings are normal, and even learn some ways to cope with the negative feelings.

Discovering Inside Feelings

What you need:

Plastic Easter eggs, paper, marker, scissors.


Identifying Feelings Version (for the younger kids)

  1. Cut out small squares of paper small enough to fold and fit into a plastic egg.
  2. On each square, draw a face with a feeling- Happy, Sad, and Mad, etc.
  3. Fold the paper and place one in each plastic egg.
  4. Mix these eggs in with other plastic eggs filled with the fun stuff.
  5. Include these eggs with the child’s regular hunt or hide these separately, your preference.
  6. When the child goes through their eggs, explain to them that some of the eggs have feelings inside, just like they do. We are going to discover some of those feelings and talk about them when they are opened.
  7. If you are doing this with your toddler, say and sign the feeling for them. Be sure to use the expression as you say the feeling (i.e. frown for sad). To learn about feeling signs for babies, visit my post on Using Signs to Teach Your Toddler About Feelings.

Scenario Version (Older preschool)

  1. Cut out small squares of paper small enough to fold and fit into a plastic egg.
  2. On each square, write a scenario that reflects at least on feeling, including Happy, Sad, Mad, Frustrated, Silly, Excited, Hyper, and Shy.
  3. An example of a scenario may be “Madison is running on the playground when she fell down. Another kid laughed at her. How do you think she feels?” *Keep in mind that scenarios that ask them to identify the feelings of other people help them to learn empathy. Scenarios that ask them how they feel help them learn how to identify their own feelings. Both are important.
  4. Fold the paper and place one in each plastic egg.
  5. Mix these eggs in with other plastic eggs filled with the fun stuff.
  6. Hide the eggs outside or in your house.
  7. When the child goes through their eggs, read the scenario and see if they can tell you how that person may feel. You may want to have a picture of feelings nearby to give them a choice. Here is a good Feelings Chart I pulled from printablebehaviorcharts.com.
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