What Can I Do with My 10-Year-Old Child Who Lacks Empathy?

What can I do with my 10-year-old son who lacks empathy?

Children learn empathy through their social environment and begin this journey as early as their toddler years. As children reach pre-teen years, parents and caregivers are building upon whatever foundation was in place leading up to that point in their development. Establishing a healthy attachment between pre-teen and adult is beneficial in fostering empathy because pre-teens will feel safer in expressing their own emotions and can therefore better extend that understanding when learning to show empathy for others.

How can you teach pre-teens to be empathetic toward others? Parents and caregivers of pre-teens can best help to foster empathy by embracing the role of an “emotion coach.” The way this works is by acknowledging (rather than dismissing) your pre-teen’s negative emotions. Then engage them in discussions about the causes and effects of those negative feelings. It also helps to teach your child constructive ways to express their negative emotions. Engage your pre-teen in discussions when you witness someone who is in distress, even if it’s simply through media (a movie, book, or TV show).  Most importantly, parents and caregivers can model empathy by honoring and resonating with your pre-teen’s state of feeling.

In reviewing research studies and the science behind empathy, I learned that what most of us commonly call “empathy” actually refers to three distinct processes of managing emotional situations. So having an understanding of each of these processes and how they interplay is helpful in teaching pre-teens to be empathetic toward others. I also learned quite a few tips and discussion points that can be helpful with fostering empathy in pre-teens.

What Is Empathy?

By most basic definitions, empathy is the ability to “tune in” to the feelings of another individual or creature. According to science, the word “empathy” is, in fact, commonly used to describe three distinct processes – all equally valuable and yet with different nuances around the concept of “empathy”:

  1. Emotional Sharing – This is when we feel emotional distress as a result of witnessing emotional distress in others.
  2. Empathetic Concern – This is our innate motivation to care for others who are experiencing distress or those whom are feeling vulnerable.
  3. Perspective-taking – This is like “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes,” or the ability to consciously imagine what another person is thinking or feeling.

Each of these processes are learned through our social environment – or not, depending on the environment and experiences. Children tend to learn “emotional sharing” at very young ages, and then develop “empathetic concern.” As children continue to develop, “perspective-taking” tends to come into play as they mature. During your child’s pre-teen years, you can help him or her to practice each of these.

As humans, we are already “wired” for empathy. We have brain circuits that are devoted to recognizing how others are feeling and to extend empathy by “feeling with them.” But our natural wiring needs careful prodding and development. As parents and caregivers, we can foster this ability in the pre-teens within our care.

Why Empathy Matters

Empathy is a necessary component of social intelligence. And many scholars believe that empathy is actually the basis for human morality itself. Empathy is certainly beneficial in social contexts, including within families and communities. Especially for pre-teens, learning empathy is important to circumvent bullying behavior common in this age bracket. (Kids who exhibit “bullying” behavior typically test poorly related to empathetic reactivity.)

Philosopher Roman Krznaric, author of “Empathy: Why It Matters and How to Get It,” explains empathy to be an ideal with the power to transform our lives and also bring about important social change. But barriers to empathy exist along the lines of prejudice, authority, denial, and distance. Identifying and breaking through those common barriers is critical in practicing enhanced empathy. And working with your pre-teen to discuss those barriers and providing opportunities to practice empathy is essential to rearing a truly empathetic individual.

Tips for Fostering Empathy in Pre-Teens

Many parents of pre-teens wonder how they can teach their child to be empathetic. If we understand that our human brains are already “wired” for empathy, we need only provide the best environment in which kids can practice, along with modeling empathy ourselves.  Here are helpful tips for fostering empathy in pre-teens:

  • Model empathy for your child. You can use everyday opportunities to model empathy for your child. By modeling this behavior yourself, you can induce empathy in your child through discussions and providing insights into what others may be feeling.
  • Provide support for your child to develop strong self-regulation skills. Often times, the first instinct of a child (or anyone, really) who is witnessing someone else’s pain or distress is to shrink away from it rather than empathize. When pre-teens feel they have supportive caregivers, they are better able to regulate their negative emotions, and research shows they are also more likely to offer help to others in distress. So supporting your child with his or her own negative feelings helps your child feel emotionally “safe” enough to offer empathy to others.
  • Help your child identify things they have in common with others. Research shows that children have similar biases as adults in being able to more easily empathize with people whom they have more in common with. Whether it’s finding things in common with people who look different, act different, or have different beliefs, finding commonalities will support an environment for an empathetic attitude and response.
  • Foster cognitive empathy through literature, role-playing, and meditation. Cognitive empathy goes beyond feeling the distress or vulnerability of others to putting themselves in the other person’s shoes, so to speak. Using literature and role-playing can help develop this awareness by asking your child questions and exploring the answers. Teaching compassion and mindfulness meditation is also a beneficial practice that your child can carry into adulthood.
  • Teach your child to consider rationalizations people use to act callously. Otherwise well-adjusted pre-teens may make hugely harmful decisions when introduced to circumstances where they have an opportunity to rationalize their behavior. Discuss what some of those circumstances may be to promote greater awareness.

For example, if someone in uniform told them to do something that felt wrong and could be harmful to someone else, would they still do it? Why or why not? Another example may be if another child whom your pre-teen judged to be “smarter” or “more mature” or “more popular” suggested something that your child wouldn’t have done on his or her own. Explore different scenarios to help your child learn to trust his or her instincts when it comes to empathizing with others.

Points of Discussion to Help Teach Empathy in Pre-teens

In providing opportunities for pre-teens to practice empathy, specific questions and activities can help. Here are some points of discussion you may want to try with your pre-teen to engage in discussions that help to foster empathetic responses.

  • Identifying others’ feelings and helping them to feel better:
    • How can you know how someone else feels? (Responses may be watching their facial expressions and body language, asking how they feel, watching what they do, listen to what they’re saying)
    • What are some ways we can recognize when another child is feeling left out? (Responses may be playing alone, not making eye contact with others, crying or looking sad, not laughing when others do)
    • What are some ways we can cheer up another child or help him/her to feel better? (Responses may be giving them some positive attention, asking if they want to hang out or spend time together, asking if there’s anything you can do, putting a hand on his/her shoulder)
  • Compare and contrast acts of kindness with acts of bullying:
    • Ask your child to spend time doing acts of kindness. What are their ideas? (Responses may be telling someone a joke, asking someone who is alone to sit with you at lunch, giving a compliment, helping with a project or activity)
    • Then ask your child to offer their perspectives about how it impacted the other child receiving the kindness. (Responses may be that the other child smiled, said they appreciated the help, laughed at the joke, etc.)
    • Ask your child how they think another child would have reacted if s/he had instead done something negative (such as teasing, excluding, or laughing at another child).
    • Point out to your child that when doing acts of kindness, it helps both the other child and the person offering the kindness.
  • Ask your child is s/he knows about “the Golden Rule” (do to others as you would want them to do to you). Expand this to include an understanding of also, “do NOT do to others what you would NOT want them to do to you.”
    • Ask your child for examples of things s/he would WANT others to do to/for them, and then ask to frame these ideas as statements. Here are some examples:
      • I would WANT others to invite me to a party or social activity outside of school, so I will invite others to my own social activities outside of school.
      • I would WANT others to speak respectfully to me and say nice things, so I will speak respectfully to others and say nice things.
      • I would WANT others to invite me to hang out and spend time with them, so I will invite others to hang out and spend time together.
      • I would WANT others to help me with difficult assignments or projects, so I will offer to help others with difficult projects or assignments.
    • Then ask your child for examples of things s/he would NOT want others to do to/for them, and then ask to frame these as statements. Here are some examples:
      • I would NOT like to be teased, so I will not tease others.
      • I would NOT like to feel excluded or isolated, so I will not exclude or isolate others.
      • I would NOT like others to insult me, so I will not insult others.

Kindness Activities to Help Foster Empathy in Pre-teens

Encouraging kindness in your pre-teen is a primary way to foster empathy. Here is a list of things you can share with your child as ideas to show kindness to others:

  • Checking in – ask your child to practice asking a classmate “How are you feeling today?” or “How are things with you?” By encouraging your child to check with others, it reminds them to be sensitive about how others may be feeling in a given moment or on a given day. Let him/her know that it’s okay if the other child responds in a negative way. We are all human and honest answers can lead to understanding someone else’s moods, behavior, and responses.

Encourage your child to really listen to the response and respond with a caring attitude. Asking this one simple question is a way for your child to let another child know someone cares about how s/he is feeling.

  • One good thing – Arm your child with this way to bring a positive point of view when discussion with their peers seems like a downer. Have your child ask another child or group “What is one good thing that happened today (or yesterday)?”

Your child could even start with describing “one good thing” that happened to him or her as a starting point. It’s an easy way to bring a positive outlook to any discussion or mood.

  • Encourage Shout-outs – Ask your child to offer “shout outs” to other kids in their group discussions (or even in one-on-one discussions). It’s as easy as giving a compliment, but when given in a group setting, it can mean even more.

Your child may offer a compliment about something someone said, an act of kindness s/he witnessed, or anything that might make someone else feel a little better. Or your child may share something s/he admires about another child.

  • Spreading positivity – Ask your child to spend time each week spreading positivity through social media. This can be via compliments, or simply sharing uplifting messages or stories.
  • Random notes of kindness – Ask your child to write random notes on sticky paper and place them on lockers, in library books, and other places for another child to find. This can be fun and creative – ensure the aims of the messages are positive and complimentary, though (not sarcastic or teasing).
  • Compliments – Ask your child to offer compliments to the first person they encounter each day at school.
  • Greetings – Ask your child to say “good morning” or some other pleasant greeting to someone in their class each morning.

By discussing and exploring these points of discussion and tips, you can provide opportunities for your child to practice empathy, as well as thinking about scenarios when it may come into play. Over time, you will be fostering an enhanced level of empathetic responses from your pre-teen.

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Laura Gemme

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