Depending on the age of the child, understanding the feelings of others may be difficult, if only due to developmental reasons. A five year old has one emotional ability and a 12 year old another. One thing though that does happen is that when they are angry no matter there age or training – they will be blinded to someone else’s feelings.
Developing this empathy will help them to understand that all of us have feelings and just as we react to how others treat us, we too can react to how others feel. Some children though who have had painful lives, may defend themselves by shutting down their sensitivity to others. Or they may use intimidation and fear as a part of their defense.
Teaching empathy is a two fold. First every child needs to understand feelings and they need adults around them whom they can trust. With our younger children, increasing their “feelings vocabulary”, is very important to them identifying both their own and others feelings.
If we find older children are having difficulty with understanding the feelings of others, encourage them to write down stories in a journal. If they have a problem get them to write or or talk about what happened – from the other persons point a view.
Finally as a parent or teacher, describing our own experiences and the emotions that we feel can be very helpful. They can identify that you have faced difficult situations or may still be dealing with them, and they will learn to empathize.
As I speak to children about different scenarios that they could see themselves in I continually hear the same one word answers, good, bad, mad. These are the labels that many children know and understand. So when asked about different situations they will use these as their answers many times. Yet we know that anger does not exist in a vacuum. There is always another emotion at work when there is an outburst. We recognize that in ourselves too.
With children though they may not have the words to identify the other emotions and so they are only, mad! When the child feels only the anger, they act on the anger and the impulses of the anger. So what can we do as parents? If we can put a label on the feelings for them by saying, “You must be feeling…..” this would be a good start. Some would say that we could say, ” You must be feeling angry.”, but we must be careful not to reinforce the feelings of being mad – and careful to watch to see if recognition of feelings of anger is used to redirect the energy to solving the problem. Our children may protest that they are not frustrated, jealous, or whatever the feeling might be that we name, but what we are trying to do is to build their vocabulary so they can start using the correct feelings words and finding ways of dealing with them.
As we make these attempts we will make mistakes and mis-characterize the emotion. Do not give up and just keep working at building everyone’s awareness of feelings.
This is an activity that has worked for me also. If I am feeling angry I try to stop and think, what am I really feeling? Am I scared, intimidated, frustrated, hungry or a whole list of other emotions and feelings. If those can be identified we many times can draw the attention to an emotion of feeling that we can control. That is very powerful.
One of the hardest things for all of us is communicating our feelings without blaming the other party for “making” us feel a certain way. Yet this is one of the most important parts of empathy. As someone trying to practice empathy we are not just going to let others walk all over us. We should not give up our own power and feelings just to make someone else feel good. That is not a win – win.
Finding a respectful way of expressing our feelings is key to maintaining this balance. One way of achieving this is to use “I” messages. Now we have all heard this before but putting this into practice whether as an adult or a child is difficult without taking our time to respond.
One suggestion that is key to expressing ourselves respectfully is to take 3 breaths prior to speaking. Consider quickly how the other person is feeling or what the situation is that created the feelings of the other person. Once we have done that the message we deliver should be on the lines of “I feel hurt when you speak to me in that manner.”
Now having the correct feeling in our mind may be the hard part and we may need to take note of what we are really feeling and why. So as we teach our children how to use “I feel statements’, we need to teach them feeling words. This will give them the vocabulary to use and not just use one or two feelings for everything. They should learn words like angry, frustrated, disappointed, happy, proud, left out, hurt, and how to use them.
Finally as parents we want to model this when we are talking about other adults, situations at work and especially when we are disciplining our children. These are teaching moments. Remember, our children learn more about how to handle things from what we do that from what we tell them to do.