Teaching Young Children About Empathy

“To see with the eyes of another, to hear with the ears of another and to feel with the heart of another.” (Alfred Adler) is a wonderful way to describe empathy.  It is a complex idea that preschoolers are not yet able to grasp, so how do parents teach their young children about empathy?

Children are great life scientists – they are constantly exploring their environments: discovering, observing and trying things.  They watch and copy the behaviours of others, so if parents show empathy, young children will mimic.  Everyday situations, as they arise, can be teachable moments: talking about the lost puppy and how scared/lonely he must be, about how the owner of this puppy must be worried/sad or about the homeless person they passed on the street.

Here are some ways that you can teach empathy to your preschoolers:

Stories are a great springboard for teaching empathy.  The story opens up the    opportunity to discuss the point of view of the character eg. “If you were the little boy/girl in the story how would you feel or what would you do?”

  • Relate the story to the child’s real life experience. “Do you remember when this happened to you and how did you feel?”
  • Perhaps it can be related to something that happened to a friend or sibling.
  • Or simply identifying the character’s feelings by looking at the facial expressions and/or body language.

Help children become aware of their own feelings: how their bodies feel (ie. where there might be tension, “I notice that you make fists when you’re mad), their facial expressions and body language.  This helps then identify it in others.

Have them care for something, like a plant or an animal.

Have fun with it: Role-play situations or play games where they have to guess what you’re feeling.

Respond with empathy: When children express disappointment, anger, sorrow or joy respond with empathy.  “You’re really disappointed that you couldn’t go to the park today. I know that you were really looking forward to it.”  Or  “Boy, you’re really excited about going to the birthday party!” (An empathic statement does not require a parent to do anything other than identify the feeling. Parents don’t need to “fix” it.)

Children are little sponges.  They soak up everything you say and do.  Everyone who is in contact with children, not just parents, has the potential to model empathy.  As parents you are your children’s first teachers and your children look to you for that guidance.

As published in the Preschool online newsletter The Shorty List

Mealtime Fun!

Has your dinner time become predictable… routine… boring?  Once in a while it may be fun to change things up a bit and have a weekend dinner that is out of the ordinary.  Here are a few suggestions for some creative mealtime experiences that involve more than pizza.

1. Backward Night:  This is the night when you eat dessert first.  Maybe you also come to the table wearing your clothes backwards.

2. Power Outage Night:  After preparing dinner, go and flip the breaker so that the power goes out.  Light candles and pretend that there is a power failure.

3. Neanderthal Night:  This is a messy meal.  No one uses utensils!

The family can all be involved in planning and preparing this meal.  It can be a lot of fun deciding what Neanderthal people might have eaten and prepare this i.e. drumsticks, chicken wings etc.

4. Indoor Picnic:  Spread out a blanket on the floor of the living room or family room and have your indoor picnic.

Please feel free to share any of your creative ideas.  More to follow……

Bon appétit!

Positive Time Out

Parents have been using time outs as a consequence for their kids’ behaviours for a while now.  The way that they’ve been used can sometimes come across as a disguised punishment.  We tell kids to go to time out to think about their behaviour and we try to make sure that time out is not pleasant either.  Kids can go to their room but they can’t read or play while they are there because, “It should not be fun!”

So let’s rewind!    

Let’s look at time out from a different perspective or as a positive time out.  A positive time out (PTO) is used as a cooling off period and is presented to out kids in a much different way.  It allows the child to learn to self-soothe and regulate his/her own emotions.  It allows for calming down before a new behaviour is possible.  Here’s the “recipe” for PTO.

– Talk to your child about how we all need cooling off periods when we our emotions and behaviour start to get out of control.  Tell your child what you do to cool off before you “lose it”.  Do you walk away and go sit in your room, or the bathroom and take 5 minutes to regain your composure? … Or is knitting your release?……Or…….

– Explain to your child that once emotions get too “BIG” we can’t carry them anymore and then we usually can’t think or act in a positive way any longer.  So a PTO will help us.

– Brainstorm with your child where they might like to go for their cooling off period.  It might be their bedroom, the cozy corner in the family room or a little alcove tucked under the stairs.  Ask them what they might like to have in this area that would help them cool off.  Books?  A favourite pillow or stuffy?  A comfy blanket?  Then help them to create this area for themselves.

So next time you see a temper tantrum starting to boil you calmly say to your child, “Would it be helpful for you to have a PTO now?”  If the PTO place is a place that they have created and have made cozy they are more that likely to want to go there. BUT remember not to use this as a punishment.

After a certain amount to time you and can go back into your child’s PTO area and ask, “Are you ready to talk about what happened and about what we can do next time?”  If you get a negative response or none just say, “I see you’re not ready to talk so come and find me when you are.”  Once everyone has calmed down, then some constructive problem solving can start to take place.  Children and adults do better when they feel better.

If your child refuses to go to his/her time out place then you say, “Well I need a time out.” and you go for a time out and return when you have calmed down.  (Of course, you are not leaving your child unattended at this time but you might go to your bedroom for a few minutes or walk around the house or go up and down the stairs a few times.) You’re modelling emotional regulation for your child.  Do not think that you are letting your child GET AWAY WITH IT!!!  You are NOT!  You are letting things calm down before addressing the issue.

Why you ask?  Well as Jane Nelsen jokingly puts it: “”When children push your buttons, you react from your reptilian brain, and reptiles eat their young.”  We all need to be in our adult brains, not our reptilian brains.  See the post on Anger to  learn about the cycle of anger.

NOTE: Young children under the age of about 2 1/2 do not understand the concept of time out and it should not be used with them.  You may want instead to ask, “Do you want to sit here with your blanket/teddy/pillow for a while?”

Get creative!!  The more kids put into their space, the more they’ll want to use it!


It’s 2012, a new year, a new start and many good intentions.  If I can suggest one resolution for all families to make this year it would be this: Make this the year when you truly embrace the saying “Mistakes are for learning.”  Model this for your children by saying, “Oh, I did this wrong.  Let’s see if I can figure out how to do it.”  Don’t berate yourself for making a mistake, take it in stride.  Show that mistakes mean that you are on your way to learning something new.

The outcome for your child is that he may start to let go of the need to always do it right and will start to be able to accept that mistakes are a normal process.  This releases your child of the huge burden of thinking that anything that’s not always right is not good enough.  So when your child is upset with him/herself because s/he made a mistake just say, “I see you’re upset that you didn’t get this all right.  You would really like to be able to do it better.”  You’re acknowledging the feelings without any judgement that making mistakes is not okay.

This leads to a more self-confident child, one who accepts him/herself for who s/he is.  Thomas Edison said “I have not failed.  I have just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”  Thanks for that Thomas!

T’is the Season!

The holiday season is a time when families, relatives and friends gather to celebrate together, some from different parts of the world.  It can be an exhausting time as you try to fit it all into your already hectic schedule.

Ten tips for keeping your sanity during the holiday season:

  1. P, P and P.  Prepare, plan ahead and pace yourself.
  2. Keep plans simple: one or two activities per week.  It’s about QUALITY NOT QUANTITY. Make a family “downtime” part of the plans.  This might be the time to watch a holiday movie at home.
  3. Include everyone in the preparations and planning of activities.  Use family meetings as a way of enlisting everyone’s help, yes, even your pre-schooler’s.
  4. Stick to the regular routine as much as possible i.e. nap times, meal times, etc.
  5. Keep the little ones nourished to avoid meltdowns.  We often get so caught up in what we’re doing that we overlook meals and snacks.  Keep snacks healthy as the season provides lots of other opportunities for treats.
  6. Having out-of-town guests?  Have kids decide who will have to give up their room to the guest (if you don’t have a guest room) and have the kids get the guest room ready (tidy, put out towels, strip the bed, etc.).
  7. Get out of the house.  Go for walking tours together to see decorated houses or store fronts or take in some free events in the neighbourhood or the city.
  8. Gift giving:  Keep it simple (tip #2, QUALITY NOT QUANTITY).  Model the gift of giving to those less fortunate than us: Look online or in the local newspaper to find a charitable organization that the family decides to contribute to (Xmas hamper, food bank, toy drives etc.).
  9. Accept a less than perfect contribution from your pre-schooler – remember you are creating memories not competing for a spot in the Martha Stewart magazine!
  10. Take care of yourself!  Hire a babysitter, for some downtime, even if it’s just to go to the local coffee shop, alone or with your partner.
  11. One last one: ENJOY and Happy Holidays! 

A Is For Anger or Anxiety

Let’s talk a bit about the cycle of anger or anxiety because both react in much the same way.  The way I think about the reaction of these emotions is on an increasing scale of o to 10, with 10 being full blown anxiety or anger (rage).  Once it gets to this point there is no use in trying to have any conversation with your child, or anyone else for that matter.  They cannot process anything as they are operating at this point from a very primitive place in their brain (flight or fight).  Once a level 10 has been reached, it takes about 45 minutes for the whole system to calm down and get back down to a 0.

Look at the “A” below and notice that between 1 and 2 there is a “crossing” to get from one side of the “A” to the other.  If we can catch our anger/anxiety at this point, we can walk across this crossing or bridge to get to the other side and from here it is a short distance back to 0.  This is why it is important to recognize the signs in our bodies that tell us that we are getting mad or that our anxiety is rising.  We feel many of the same sensations in our bodies, clenching and tightening, butterflies in our stomachs, feeling hot or cold, energy in our legs (to flee or to fight).  With anxiety we may also feel a shortness of breath, our hearts racing, a tightness in our chests and/or sweaty palms.

If we can recognize these signs within our bodies, then we can take action before our level reaches 2.  There are a few suggestions listed on the “A” which allow us to then walk across the bridge and stop the anger/anxiety from reaching a 10 and then having a long, long way back.  Also to note is that it is a very quick climb to 10 once we’ve hit the 2.

So, teach your children how to notice the signs in their bodies and what to do when they start so that they can take control of these emotions and keep them at a level where they are still useful energy.

See the article Angrrrrr! for more information about anger.


Anger is not something that we are comfortable with.  It is a normal feeling and it is a reaction to something that has been experienced.  Maybe your child saw something, heard something, felt something or thought about something.  Then (and here is an important piece) your child decided to react to that” something” with anger.  Being angry is a decision that we all make, nothing or no one can “make” us angry.

Another thing about anger is that the ways that anger is shown is learned.  That means that it can be unlearned and relearned.  Anger is not a “reflex” reaction, it is not uncontrollable nor does it control us.

There are two parts to anger: 1) It begins in the brain and we decide to be angry.  2) We then decide what to do with the anger (how to express it).

I think it is important to teach this to our kids early on.  We can model it everyday.  “It makes me so mad when I stub my foot!” implies that the anger is out of our control but changing it to “I get so mad when I stub my toe!” says that you have made a choice to be angry and you are owning the anger.  But let’s look at this statement closer.  Why am I MAD when I stub my toe?  Am I not hurt?  Yes, I am hurt but anger is an emotion that we often use to mask other emotions like hurt or even sadness, disappointment or frustration.

So…. we need to also teach our children the vocabulary of the whole range of emotions: happy, excited, ecstatic, delighted, mad, furious, enraged, irritated, sad, disappointed, frustrated, etc.  Go to http://www.psychpage.com/learning/library/assess/feelings.html for a complete list of feeling words.

Okay, so now our kids have the words, they need to express the emotion, in this case anger, in an acceptable way.  It is NOT acceptable to use anger as an excuse to hurt themselves or others: body, or feelings, nor is it okay to treat people, animals or property without respect.

Kids need to know that it is okay to share their anger with whomever they’re angry with in a respectful way.  If they cannot do it respectfully then they need time to cool down.  They could do something physical, like ride a bike, go for a walk or run or punch a pillow.  They could also count to 10 or 100! in order to give themselves a chance to cool down.  They could go watch a movie, listen to their iPod or write the person an angry letter that they throw away.

When channeled effectively anger provides energy to make things right that are wrong.  It also gives one courage to speak up with respect and it can give one courage to get a difficult job done.  Anger holds a lot of energy and this energy can be powerful and useful.Anger sends messages.   It may be saying, “Pay attention to me!”, “I don’t like …..!”, “Treat me fairly!” or “I am frustrated (or a number of other emotions)!”  It is up to us to try an decipher these messages for our kids so that we can give them the appropriate language for expressing these messages.  Who ever said that parenting was easy??!!!!  Now we are detectives that need to decipher messages!

*So to sum everything up, here is a list of things to do to help children deal with anger.

1. Be a positive role model.

2. Identify and acknowledge the child’s feelings. (You’re really frustrated with that Math problem!)

3. Help the child become aware of signs of trouble.

4. Teach the child to become aware of the signs of anger in his/her body (clenched fists or jaw, feeling hot, sensations in stomach, tension in the body).

5. Stop, calm down, get the facts, think it through and talk it out.

6. Set limits.

7. Use positive time outs for dangerous or destructive behaviours (positive time outs are cooling off periods).

8. Use “I” messages. “I feel _______ when ________ because ______.

9. Problem solve.

10. Role play acceptable expressions of anger.

* Adapted from Terry Lowe (1998)

See A is for Anger or Anxiety for more information on the cycle of anger/anxiety