Can empathy be taught? - Mothering Forums

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Old 01-04-2002, 06:39 PM - Thread Starter
 
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I feel like I'm always looking for help for friends on these boards...hope nobody minds!

A good friend of mine has a 3 year old son who has some problems with aggressive behavior and social skills. I won't go into detail about that, because it doesn't seem necessary. The relevant part is that this child seems to have absolutely no empathy at all. I know all children develop emotionally at different rates, but this seems a bit odd to me.

For example, at the playground, a friend of his tripped and fell on his face right in front of this child, bloodying his nose. All the other kids, including my dd (same age) reacted in some way to the blood and the crying, from just stopping and looking until the injured child was safely in Mommy's arms to anxiously asking, "Is Zac okay? What happened to Zac?" My friend's ds just looked down at the child blankly and tried to ride his tricycle around him. Another example is from today - he pushed my dd down and she got hysterical crying, and he just said, "Sorry!" automatically, almost cheerfully. Then when I carried my crying daughter over to him as he was getting his coat on (his mom told him he had to go home), dd sobbed, "You hurt my body and my feelings!!!" (Ain't that great? ) and he just looked at her with a sort of vacant half-smile. It was kinda creepy. His poor mom doesn't know what to do, because no matter how many times she leaves playdates or tries to talk to him about it, she feels like he just has no concept of why it is wrong to hurt people, and that none of her lessons stick because of his lack of empathy.

What does everyone think? Isn't some level of empathy "normal" in a child this age? It's not like the mom is cold and unfeeling, and while she couldn't be called AP and has a tendency to not recognize the feelings when reprimanding the behavior, she is still an attentive and loving mom. Is there anything she can do to help him develop empathy?
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Old 01-04-2002, 07:41 PM
 
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How sad for this little boy. Of course he can be "taught" empathy! I worked with young children for many years and firmly believe that ALL children can be shown how to express feelings and how to react appropriately, but some need more help than others. One thing I reacted to was when you said that the boy's mother said he had to go home and was packing him up to leave when YOU had to take your dd over to talk with him. She should have stopped him, pointed out how your daughter was reacting and why (look, she is crying because you pushed her and now she is sad, maybe it hurts on her body, etc.) and then she should ask him how he thinks they can help her feel better. Sounds like she is teaching him to say a quick sorry, which means NOTHING, and that the best way to deal with a conflict or something uncomfortable is to leave. Sure it will be uncomfortable for him and her to stop and have to deal with situations, but it is best for him in the long run to not just quickly leave a hard situation as a means of resolution. When I taught preschool, I actually never told a child to "say sorry" because it becomes a quick fix with no meaning. It is much better to help children leanr to "make sorry"--which is harder but a better life skill. His reactions sound to me like embarrassed reactions (like the half-smile) because he simply doesn't know what to do. Same with the driving around with the tricycle--it is uncomfortable so he will ignore it. The mother can help him by helping him find words for all kinds of feelings. She should point out when they see someone happy, sad, excited, angry, etc., when he is not necessarily involved in the situations. This way he can begin to learn the terms and then begin to attach meaning to them. She should espceially do this when it is just the two of him about his own emotions, to always point out how he seems to be feeling. Whenever my 2-year-old ds yells or gets angry with his brother, I always say something like, "Wow you sound angry. I can tell that by your voice." Or I ask him, "Are you angry? I thought so because you wee shouting." I even do this when he is happy: "Just listen to that laugh! That makes me think you are happy!" This helps him to label the feeling and also understand how an onlooker can read another person's feelings. Sounds like this is the first step for him to understand his own responsibilities in conflict and emotions.
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Old 01-05-2002, 11:51 PM
 
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Peacemama~~~
I'm so glad you PMed me about this thread...it made me come read it right away!!

I'm not kidding.....I have a friend that is EXACTLY the way you described your friend!! He pushes, hits, shoves....whatever and nothing empathetic comes from him whatsoever! His mom is fed up!

My belief is that the kids were dealt with wrong from birth. In my case, he was never snuggled, never coslept, always spanked and sent to his room! He even has gone as far as hitting me when I tried to discipline him. And the funny thing about this boy is that when he gets hurt the whole world better stop and listen or he throws a fit......he'll do that anyway! LOL

So I don't really know the answer!

I think it just takes time and maturaty! Or sometimes it never comes!

good luck
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Old 01-07-2002, 05:51 PM
 
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Old 01-08-2002, 07:34 PM
 
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HMMM...I've had some moments with my daughter when she was a few years younger (she's just about 5 now) where if she has hurt someone elses feelings...it appeared she didn't "get it". However, we have tried to teach her about empathy by comforting her when she feels bad then reminding her about how she made others feel in similar circumstances. It is not a guilt trip but a gentle reminder that she should remember how she feels now if/when the circumstances arise that she may purposefully or even inadvertently hurt someone elses feelings. She's now a pretty sensitive kid and is quick to say "I'm sorry" and mean it to others...although there are still moments when she forgets Mom and Dad have feelings too .

What methods have others used to teach empathy?? I like amsvensk's ideas...anything else?

Cheers...Robyn
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Old 01-08-2002, 07:39 PM
 
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i think empathy is always "taught".
i don't think it is "natural instinct".

it is up to us to teach our children empathy.

some of the ways we do it are:

when reading a book--i try to get children to Empathize with the character and his feelings.

when watching tv or movies--i try to get them to understand and empathize with the characters and stories. (disney is good for this in my opinion--such as bambi.


discussing feelings of others is important.
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Old 01-08-2002, 08:00 PM
 
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peacemama,
Is this the same child who we talked about before? If it is and he is suffering from sensory integration issues it really has nothing to do with empathy. It is how he recieves stimuli and reacts to it. If he gets therapy his behavior and reactions towards others will greatly improve.
um...if it's not the same child..well then..nevermind..

peggy
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Old 01-08-2002, 09:26 PM - Thread Starter
 
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Yes, peggy, it is the same child! Very perceptive.

Actually, I checked out the info. on sensory integration and, while very interesting, it really did not describe my friend's ds. Thanks for the advice, though!

I have noticed that the mom doesn't do very much to teach ds about feelings, especially the feelings of others. Amsvensk has a very good point when she says the mom should have taken her son over to my dd to point out how he made her feel, rather than the other way around. She does tend to ignore the feelings of the victim and put all her energy into reprimanding her son.

Something interesting happened during the playdate I mentioned above that I forgot to tell. I think this boy has never been taught acceptable ways to express "negative" feelings, and that he just gets told "That's not nice" a lot of the time. He was playing with a toy and yelled at my dd to "Get AWAAAYYY!!!" and mom told him to be nice, that he has to share, blah, blah, and when she was all done I said to him, "You seem like you really want to play with that toy alone. That's okay, you know, and it is not an easy toy to share. next time, instead of yelling, try saying, 'I want to play with this by myself. Please wait your turn.' " I swear, he looked at me like I had just shown him the Rosetta Stone. Well, would you believe that he did EXACTLY that the next time? It made quite an impression on his mom, too. I'm starting to think that this is the real problem, that he has never had his feelings recognized and validated, and that he has been made to feel that the feelings themselves are unacceptable, rather than the way in which he chooses to express them. I actually was able to discuss this with my friend and she said it made sense to her, so I hope she tries to interact with him in this way.
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Old 01-09-2002, 02:54 PM
 
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OMG! This is what I plan to do my grad thesis paper on but with the focus being older kids. I belive that teaching empathy is very important. I hope to prove it.

Eden yikes.gif, working on a PhD in Education mama to Laurelleshamrocksmile.gif (16), Orijoy.gif (6), Yarrowfaint.gif (4) and Linusfly-by-nursing1.gif (1) partner to Brice. 
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Old 01-09-2002, 07:02 PM
 
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Go BathrobeGoddess Sounds like a great topic!! I look forward to reading it one day!

Cheers...Robyn
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Old 01-10-2002, 12:45 PM
 
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I think we have to define "teach". Here in Japan, "morals and moral behavior" is a subject "taught" at schools, (JHS, SHS) and it is a disaster.

If you are "preached at" taught, then nothing will go in.

Indeed, from the perspective of a child, (especially a teenager), some boring old fart ranting on and on.... can you imagine?

As for the smaller child that is described at the start of this post, example after example is needed, and Sleepies suggestion is certainly a good step in the right direction, although I would edit out all the scarey bits (some kids live just for that) and double up on all the gooyey luv luv bits.

Hope this helps

a

The anti-Ezzo king
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