I remember my son Eamon crying hysterically and screaming for me when he was at a speech therapy session. At the time, he was struggling tremendously with separation anxiety and PTSD after a traumatic experience. My younger son, Kieran and I were in the next room watching on video so I was assured that Eamon was OK..and the therapist was trying to teach him to self-calm and realize he was safe. As she was talking to him, she was also talking to me through the video. I was able to understand this component, but the little ones did not. Eamon was just turning 4 and his little brother was not quite 3.
Kieran began crying. “Mommy, we have to get Eamon”, as the tears streamed down his face. A truly heartbreaking moment. Yet, it was extremely clear that Kieran was feeling complete and total empathy for his brother. Kieran was acutely aware of what Eamon was feeling and Eamon’s feelings triggered emotions within Kieran.
However, Eamon is not always tuned in to the emotions of others, a common component in children on the spectrum. He is innately curious and eager to learn, but might miss the message if it is not completely concrete.
“Empathy builds over time as children’s awareness of other people’s feelings and thoughts develop. Empathy is an important aspect of prosocial behavior and healthy, strong relationships, and is something we can help our children to develop.” ~ Karen Reivich, Ph.D.
When we try to put ourselves in the shoes of another person, we can imagine what another person is feeling and thinking and in doing this, we are exhibiting empathy. As parents and teachers, we can foster a sense of empathy by helping our children notice the emotional responses of others.
If we are reading a book or watching a movie, I commentate as we go along. I might say, “Boy, he looks really mad, huh?” Or I might point out a smiling child in a book and discuss how we think this child might be feeling based on the environment around the child.
Play therapy or role playing can help to facilitate the development of empathy. I get on the floor with the kids and play with their toy action figures. Although the boys are unaware, I use this time to work on a recent scenario to teach correct skills. I use the bodies of the action figures in a scenario. I give them a different voice tone to demonstrate the feelings I am trying to convey. I also exaggerate my facial expressions. This is fun play for the kids but my goal is to help my boys think about the emotions of others and come up with creative ideas to help the person experiencing the emotions.
Some suggested scenarios….
-Batman opens up a birthday present from Robin and it’s something that he didn’t want.
-Ironman is scared of the new substitute teacher
-Fireman Fred finishes a project that he worked very hard on.
-Spiderman sees a kid to play with at the park and when he walks over to him, the kid yells at him
-Hulk’s best friend comes over to show Hulk a new toy he just got.
The best way to teach empathy is to show empathy. How tuned in to the feelings of others, are you? How do you demonstrate that you care about other’s feelings? Serving as a role model is the best way for children to learn about empathy.
Kieran slipped and fell on a wet floor recently. Of course, he was crying. I was on the floor assessing the injury. Eamon got on the floor, comforted his brother, much like I was and then exclaimed, “I am going to make you all better by getting you a boo boo buddy!” Eamon is beginning to demonstrate empathy and is offering solutions to various situations.