Parenting advice to curb insensitivity, boost emotional intelligence and increase empathy in our children
“Why should I care how he feels? He’s not my friend.”
“So what if I made him cry. He’s a wimp.”
“How was I supposed to know he would take it so bad? I was just joking.”
Sensitizing children to how someone else feels is a significant and serious enterprise. Kids can’t do this alone–they must be supported, supervised, and encouraged to develop sensitivity and consideration, and parents play an key role in this endeavor.
The true parenting challenge is to use those unplanned moments when a child’s behavior is unacceptable as a learning tool to become more responsive to the feelings of others.
Besides, that’s always the best kind of lesson: one that helps the child discover for herself why she should be kind and realize her uncaring, insensitive actions may affect others by understanding how the other person feels.
Martin Hoffman, a world-renown researcher from the University of Michigan, discovered that the most common discipline technique parents of highly considerate children use is reasoning with them about their uncaring behavior. The parents’ “reasoning lessons” helped sensitize their children to the feelings of others, and realize how their actions have consequences.
It’s an important parenting point to keep in mind in those moments when we confront our own kids for any uncaring deed.
7 Ways to Squelch Insensitivity and Boost Empathy
Here are seven ideas you can use almost anytime tune up your child’s awareness of the feelings of others.
1. Praise sensitive, kind actions
One of the simplest and most effective ways of enhancing any behavior is by reinforcing the action as soon as it happens.
Whenever you notice your child acting in a sensitive and caring manner, let her know how pleased it makes you feel:
“Karen, I love how gentle you are with your sister. You treat her so softly, and it makes me so happy knowing how caring you are.”
2. Show the effect of sensitivity
Sensitive, empathic, kind acts-even small ones-can make a big difference in people’s lives, so point them out to help your child see the impact his actions made.
“Derrick, your grandmother was so pleased when you called to thank her for the present.”
“Suraya, did you see the smile on Ryan’s face when you shared your toys?”
3. Draw attention to nonverbal feeling cues
Pointing out the facial expressions, posture, and mannerisms of people in different emotional states sensitizes your child to other people’s feelings. As occasions arise, explain your concern and share what clues helped you make your feeling assessment.
“Did you notice Grandma’s face when you were talking with her today? I thought she looked puzzled. Maybe she is having trouble hearing. Why not talk a little louder when you speak with her?”
“Did you see the expression on Meghan’s face when you were playing today? She looked worried about something because she had a scowl on her face. Maybe you should ask her if everything is OK.”
“Let’s read the book together and look for people who seem mad. Then we can make our face look the same way.”
4. Ask often, “How does he feel?”
One of the easiest ways to nurture your child’s sensitivity is to ask her to ponder how another person feels. As opportunities arise, pose the question often, using situations in books, TV, and movies as well as real life.
“How do you think the mommy feels, knowing that her little girl just won the prize?”
“The tornado destroyed most of the town here in Georgia; see it here on the map? How do you think the people feel?”
“How do you think Daddy feels hearing that his mom is so sick?”
Each question forces your child to stop and think about other people’s concerns, and nurtures sensitivity to their needs. Ask those “how would you feel” type questions often.
5. Use the formula: “feels + needs”
Michael Schulman and Eva Mekler, authors of Bringing Up a Moral Child,[i] reviewed studies and found that an effective way to increase sensitivity is to ask children questions to help them discover people’s needs and feelings. Such questions were found to expand children’s awareness of what people might be experiencing. As a result the children became more sensitive to how they might be able to help.
To use the idea with your child, look for occasions to draw attention to people’s feelings and then ask her to guess what the person might need in order to remedy the feeling. Here is how a parent might use the method:
Parent: Look at that little girl crying in the sandbox. How do you suppose she feels?
Child: I think she is sad.
Parent: What do you think she needs to make her feel better?
Child: Maybe she could use someone to hug her because she hurt her knee.
6. Explain your disapproval of the insensitive behavior
Whenever your child displays insensitivity, be sure to explain why you consider the child’s behavior to be unacceptable and “insensitive.”
Simply explain what concerns you about the behavior, and how you feel about uncaring actions. This is the moment you make sure your child clearly understands what is wrong about the behavior, and why you disapprove. And you’ve helped your child shift his focus from himself to considering how his actions can impact other people. Martin Hoffmann’s research in moral development found that parents who consistently use “reasoning-type stretching lessons” raised more sensitive, caring, empathic children.
- “I’m very concerned when I see you treating your friends without considering their feelings. You may not treat people unkindly. Let’s talk about ways to be a kind friend.”
- “That was insensitive: I expect you to treat your friends the same way you’d want to be treated.”
7. Set a consequence if insensitivity continues, PRONTO
If your child continues to display insensitivity towards others’ feelings, then it’s time to set a consequence. Remember, consequences must be meaningful, appropriate to the child’s age and temperament, and “fit the crime.” The best consequences for insensitivity are also authentic ways for the child to make amends. For example, forbid your child from playing with a friend until your child understands he must treat others kindly. Your rule is: “If you can’t treat people nicely, you can’t play.”
Another option is to demand your child apologize sincerely to the recipient. This might be drawing or writing an apology or apologizing in person or with a phone call.
And keep on in your quest! Find those day-to-day moments to boost your child’s sensitivity. It’s our surest answer to reducing peer cruelty and making the world a kinder and more caring place.
I am an educational psychologist, parenting expert, TODAY show contributor and author of 22 books including The Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries. You can also refer to my daily blog, Dr. Borba’s Reality Check for ongoing parenting solutions and late-breaking news and research about child development.
Schulman, M., and Mekler, E. Bringing Up a Moral Child. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley Publishers, 1985, p. 55.