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Helping kids develop empathy, manage emotions

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Hi Dr. Laura--I've been lurking here for a long time, and I finally have a question of my own.

I have a 3.5 year old named Aden. I have been trying to help him to be emotionally aware, and to give him a vocabulary to use to express his emotions appropriately. For example: it's okay to be angry; it's not okay to hit your sister.

He has suddenly seemed to grasp the concept (not all the time, but often), and I am proud of him. Tonight, I checked on him after he was in bed, and he was awake. He said, "I'm angry Mom." When I questioned him, he said that he was angry becuase earlier I reprimanded him for taking a ball away from his sister that he was only trying to put away.

I apologized for not listening to him before and explained my reasoning. Another night (why do these conversations happen after bedtime?), he told me he was worried about his friends, and it came out that he had gotten in a time out at school. However, this has brought up a couple more issues that I can see...

1. He can say he's mad/sad/worried/happy, but he doesn't necessarily know what to do about it. Unfortunately, I don't think I'm the best example, because I don't always handle my anger well. So what should I suggest for him when he's angry? He's already identifying the anger and talking about it. He's *usually* not lashing out physically. Should I tell him to hit a pillow? To jump up and down on a cushion 5 times? Is talking about it enough? I also have noticed that when he is feeling a strong emotion (even nice ones like love or happiness), he can withdraw and become a little touchy for a few minutes.

2. I have been trying to teach him empathy, to the point where I realize that he feels responsible for the emotions of others. The other morning I caught him squishing his sister, and I quickly hauled him up by the armpits, yelling, "You're hurting her." I scared both kids and myself. Both kids were crying, and I was frazzled, so I sat on floor and took a breath to calm down. My deep breath scared him more than the yelling, so Aden said, "Don't be angry, Mommy!" and tried to give me a hug. I appreciate the thought, but I don't want him to think it's his job to make sure I'm happy...too much of a burden for a little guy! So how do you teach a child empathy, without making him feel responsible for others' emotions? Thanks for any thoughts you have. I love reading your responses!


What a terrific job you are doing at helping your son develop emotional intelligence! I love your description.

1. What can you do to help Aden process his feelings? Mostly, just noticing and expressing feelings is enough. Being able to name his sadness or worries or disappointment to you, and having you honor them by acknowledging the feeling allows him to let go of the emotion. The exception is anger, because research shows that expressing anger is not always effective. Sometimes when our bodies are angry and primed for “fight or flight” it does help to “let off steam” with physical activity.

But contrary to popular belief, expressing anger verbally often reinforces it and makes us more angry! That's because anger is actually a cover-up emotion, or a defense. We get angry as a way to defend against more threatening emotions. How does this work? Everyone knows that the best defense is a good offense. We take it for granted that we get angry if someone accuses us unjustly.

For instance, let's say Aden is putting away a ball and you reprimand him for taking it away from his sister. He feels hurt. Your respect means everything to him and here you have seen him as less than he is. Not only that, since he has sometimes certainly taken toys from his sister, he feels guilty – and worried that you see that in his soul he is the kind of kid who takes things from his sister. All these worries plague him, especially the fear that he will lose your love. He can't bear those feelings. So to defend against them, he attacks, at least in his head. He gets angry at you.

But this can also happen when his anger is less obviously justifiable. For instance, you pay attention to his sister. The same fear of losing your love is triggered. He can't bear that feeling. So he lashes out. At the next opportunity he covertly pushes his sister.

Many kids who are chronically aggressive are actually in need of a good cry over all the normal disappointments and hurts of daily life. That's why if we can stay near while they tantrum, they often end up in our arms sobbing, and then are much more pleasant. So the best way to diffuse anger is actually to first acknowledge it: “You were really angry at her today.” Then, go under the anger: “I wonder if you were feeling sad because I spent so much time with your sister this morning,” or “I wonder if you were disappointed that Daddy left on his work trip before you got up this morning.” He probably will not have made the connection, so don't expect instant agreement. But if you do this with some frequency you will be teaching him to regularly look under his anger.

The next step is learning to express what he's unhappy about in a positive way so that he changes the situation that's making him angry. (Something all of us can benefit from learning!) What a gift that is – you will be raising a child who can handle anger well!

I should add that when a kid (or adult) is in the throes of anger, you can't usually get their attention very well, so offering your suggestion about what's under the anger is best left until he calms down a bit and can reflect. While they're furious, they need us to acknowledge it: “You are so mad!” Then they need to let off steam physically. It's great if during a calm moment, you and Aden can come up with a list and make a little chart of pictures of ok ways to express anger:

  • Hit a pillow.
  • Beat a drum.
  • Dance to loud music.
  • Run around the house three times.
  • Draw a mad picture.
  • Go in the bathroom, run the water, and roar loudly.
  • Breathe deeply ten times.
  • Do ten jumping jacks.

If you put this chart on the fridge – and you model using it yourself – your son might surprise you by using it sometimes when he's mad. The problem, though, is that once we're swept by rage, we're sure the other person is wrong and we're completely justified. At those times it's difficult to convince the angry person to hit a pillow. So the most effective anger management is really before our child gets to that point, by helping them to accept their full range of emotions, so they don't need to get angry as often.

2. I don't think that Aden thought he was responsible for your feelings because he was feeling empathy. I think he was afraid you were angry at him because he was hurting his sister. That's very natural. When our kids are positively attached to us, they behave to please us, and they avoid misbehaving because they don't want us to be angry at them.

Eventually, these habits become who they are – kids who use their words instead of hitting, who brush their teeth, who are considerate and responsible, who tackle the extra credit homework. But all these habits begin with the child's desire to please us.

Aden didn't want you mad at him, because that would be a fate as bad as death to him. And that's actually a good thing, an indicator that you've been the kind of parent whose love coaxes good behavior out of your child. So instead of “You're not responsible for my feelings” you could smile at him and say “I'm sorry if I scared you. I'm not angry, don't worry. I was just worried you had hurt her. I was scared. Breathing is a good way to get calm when you're scared. Want to breathe with me?”

Kids mostly learn empathy by having their parents treat them with empathy. But you can increase his emotional intelligence, as you are doing, by helping him to notice other people's feelings. I think his natural response will be to want to help, which is healthy: “Sam is sad. Should we see if we can cheer him up?”

But if you're concerned about him feeling responsible for Sam's feelings, it's also good to teach boundaries by clearly distinguishing each person's feelings: “Sam is disappointed the merry go round is broken. But you don't seem to mind. You're excited about playing in the sandbox, aren't you?”

In closing, I want to share with you a “daily inspiration” email I sent out recently on the topic of those nighttime conversations our kids initiate. (You can sign up for these newsletters on my website.) As you can see, Aden's not the only one who comes up with these issues at bedtime!

"In moments of silence, you see children's souls."
-- Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso

A reader wrote recently, "Why is it my child always wants to have intense conversations after lights out at bedtime?" Don't worry, your child isn't consciously manipulating you. Humans, including kids, are busy and distracted all day. When the lights go out and the stillness settles, the unresolved issues of the heart press in on us.

Setting your child's bedtime a wee bit earlier with the assumption that you'll spend some time visiting and snuggling in the dark is one of the best things you can do for your child. Sometimes, you might even have an agenda for your visit. But most of the time, you'll want to cuddle in silence. Those companionable, safe moments of silence invite whatever your child is currently grappling with to surface.

Do you have to resolve it then? No. Just listen. Acknowledge feelings. Reassure your child that you hear their concern, and that together you will solve it, tomorrow. The next day, follow up. You'll be amazed how your relationship with your child deepens. You might even catch a glimpse of your child's soul.

Dr Laura,

Wow! You have given me a lot of ideas, and I will share these with my husband as well. What you said about anger really makes sense. It is the kind of thing I can intuitively recognize, but I would probably have never come up with it on my own. I think the idea that expresing anger isn't always good--that anger is a defensive emotion--will help me also to deal with my own emotions. I appreciate your response and I'll keep you posted.

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Dr. Laura Markham is the author of three best-selling books

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