As a parent, empathy is perhaps the most critical skill you can develop in your child. It not only transforms us as adults, being in good connection with, and communication of, our own emotions, it also helps our children develop a good vocabulary associated with their emotions. This leads to, through guided conversations and lots of practice, the ability to identify their emotions, and recognize similar emotions in others.
Empathy is defined as having three key ingredients: affect detection, imaginative transposition, and boundary formation. As I discussed in my previous post, Empathy: The Foundation of Effective Parenting Part One, affect detection involves the ability of a person to detect a change in the emotional disposition of someone else. As this requires a basic understanding of the expression of emotions, yours and others’, I offered some suggestions as to how to help your child begin to navigate this territory, by describing your own emotions as well as your child’s in a healthy manner.
After you have established a good vocabulary of emotions with your child, the next ingredient of empathy is imaginative transposition. As John Medina, author of Brain Rules for Baby, states, “Once a person detects an emotional change, he transposes what he observes onto his own psychological interiors. He “tries on” the perceived feelings as if they were clothes, then observes how he would react given similar circumstances.”
You can create and participate in fun role-playing situations with your children for this particular component of the empathy progression. When a sibling cries because he falls down, say, “Look at Johnny’s face. How do you think he’s feeling?” (affect detection). Then, “How would you feel if you had fallen down?” (imaginative transposition). “Remember when you fell down on the sidewalk? You cried and had a big scrape. It really hurt.” Taking your child back to a similar experience which resulted in a similar emotion helps the child connect the two experiences, and is an important building block of developing empathy.
Finally, the person who is empathizing recognizes at all times that the emotion is happening to the other person, not to him or herself. This is called boundary formation. Medina states, “Empathy is powerful, but it also has boundaries.” Once again, this is important information for a child to receive and practice. He or she maintains a separate-ness about an emotional situation.
In my preschool class, I read Stand in My Shoes: Kids Learning about Empathy by Bob Sornson. It’s about a little girl whose sister is frustrated by her lack of empathy, and asks her to pay attention to those around her. She does, and has an eye-opening experience as to what others may be feeling. After reading the story, I took my shoes off and set them in the middle of the carpet. I asked each child, one at a time, to come up, stand in that pair of shoes, and pretend that those shoes belonged to one of the characters in the book. I asked each child, “How do you think that person feels? Show me with your face how you would look if you felt that way.” And then, “Are you really feeling that way now?” I did this repeatedly (fourteen times, to be exact) until the response was clearly, “NO! That’s how the OTHER person was feeling!” I emphasized after each role-playing scenario that, while each child could identify with that particular emotion, it was not his/her emotion at that time. We can understand, and empathize, because we have, in fact, experienced similar situations, but in that moment, we were merely putting ourselves in another’s shoes, literally, getting in touch with that person’s emotion.
I use two key phrases to help children act on the emotional situations in which they find themselves. I do this using pictures of other people in books, and, of course, in the class and on the playground (real life is oh, so rich in opportunities to practice empathy!) The first phrase is, “What do I see?” This puts into action the process I described above. I ask the child to observe: What does the other person’s face look like? What is he/she saying? Can I identify with this emotion? Then, keeping in mind that this is the other person’s feeling, I have the child ask him/herself, “What can I say?” Kids can be incredibly imaginative in offering solutions in these situations. If a child looks as if he is feeling left out, another can say “Do you want to play with me?” If someone looks sad, another can say, “I’m sorry that happened” or “Are you okay?”
The three components of empathy, affect detection, imaginative transposition, and boundary formation, can all be practiced in everyday situations. Label your own emotions aloud, and comment on your child’s emotions. Lean into them, discuss them and they become less scary, more familiar. When you see another person expressing an emotion, recall and comment on a time your child felt that way. Then continue to remind your child that, while he/she can understand that emotion, it is the other person’s emotion. Again, I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to teach and practice these situations. You are giving your child tools to develop empathy, a lifelong gift to him/her and the community of people around all of you.