Are You Okay? Cultivating Empathy Alongside Young Children

Learning is a result of listening, which in turn leads to even better listening and attentiveness to the other person. In other words, to learn from the child, we must have empathy, and empathy grows as we learn.

~Alice Miller

After working with young children for many years, it has become clear to me that they are highly attuned to others, they are wired that way. It is their biological imperative to form strong attachments with their parents first, then later with their peers. This is how relationships are built. Young children are very sensitive to the shifting emotional climates around them, and sometimes they mirror the feelings of others to achieve a sense of belonging…to feel like they are part of a group. But what about times when they are in conflict with another, or someone has gotten hurt? Can they see from another person’s point of view? Are they able to stop what they are doing and check in with that person to make sure they are okay before moving on? The fact is children are developing this skill continually, and they become more capable of empathizing with others when they have had empathy modeled for them and experienced it firsthand.

When a child gets hurt, either by accident or purposefully, physically or emotionally, our policy at school is to make sure the child who did the hurting not only checks in with the other, but follows through with whatever need that child might have. Maybe it’s a bag of ice, a band-aid, or maybe it’s just some time to feel all the feelings that come along with getting hurt…until they are ready to play again. Sometimes this is met with “I don’t want to!” or even a simple “No!”, and this is where the opportunity arises to model empathy, not just for the child who was hurt, but for the child who did the hurting. This can feel difficult or even triggering for adults. It conflicts with our sense of fairness and justice and it can feel counterintuitive to react with gentle concern when a child is lashing out. Adults often attempt to force consequences in a scenario like this, usually in a punitive or shaming manner. What helps children internalize empathy, however, is experiencing natural or logical consequences for their behavior, and guidance from an adult while they are struggling to stay present during the discomfort of being held accountable for their actions. It is our job in that moment to help them follow through while empathizing with their feelings about not wanting to.

“I know it’s hard, it can feel scary when someone gets hurt and cries. It’s important to make sure they are okay before playing again. I will help you.”

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I have had many “Aha!” moments over the years and here is a BIG one I’d like to share. Imagine seeing young children with new eyes and breaking out of the victim/aggressor mindset, and how freeing that could be. Even though things can be seen this way, especially if your child is the one on the receiving end of aggressive, rough or hurtful behaviors, it is crucial to reframe our thinking when it comes to young children. It truly is not black and white. If we look at ALL young children with a deeper understanding of their development and what is to be expected from them wherever they are along that spectrum, we can begin to discard those restricting and sometimes self-fulfilling labels (i.e. victim, bully etc.). Only then can we begin to approach each conflict with compassion and the desire to understand each child’s point of view. This enables us to facilitate and model problem solving, and make sure each voice is heard. Sometimes just reflecting back to children what they are telling you is enough to help them through a problem. They want to feel heard and understood just like we do when we experience upset.

Childhood itself is a completely unique period of time, and we grown-ups can sometimes have “childhood amnesia”, where we have forgotten what it really FEELS like to be a child. At this age children are struggling with a mixture of intense, new, sometimes overwhelming emotions while learning to control and curb their impulses. They sometimes feel powerless, insignificant, small, unheard, criticized or teased. Every child who lashes out, hits, bites or throws things is experiencing stress, frustration or anger and underlying all of that there is an unmet need. They may be hungry, tired or overstimulated. Sometimes their aggression is a cry for connection. At other times it’s much more complex and requires us to thoughtfully observe and puzzle out what the need might be. Sometimes children just need us to sit and “weather the storm” alongside them, allowing them to vent. Accepting their feelings (whether they are angry, anxious, disheartened or sad) is different than accepting the behaviors that sometimes accompany them. Holding space for their emotional outbursts, staying present and keeping them safe until they regain calm grants them the opportunity to develop and hone coping skills that will serve them for the rest of their lives. It also shows them that even when their behavior is challenging and demanding, they are loved. At the core of empathy is unconditional love. The more they receive it , the more likely they will be to internalize and return it. When they see that their feelings are cared for, they will learn to care for the feelings of others.

School is an environment that can be demanding and full of stressful confrontations. When a group of young children come together in a shared space, with communal materials, conflict is expected. I’ve seen clashes arise out of territorial interests (“Im playing here!”), gender or general exclusion (“no boys allowed!”, “you can’t play here.”), disapproving feedback (“you built your tower wrong.”), ability assessment (“you don’t know how to ride a bike.”), ownership (“that’s mine!”) and the list goes on and on. Children are just beginning to learn how to navigate our extremely complex social structure. They are testing out what is okay and not okay, all while gauging how the adults around them react to their behavior. They are constantly trying things out and forming hypothesis. They are simultaneously learning about themselves, and how they fit into their family, their school, and their community at large. They are learning acceptable ways to solve problems through trial and error, guidance and modeling. They are grappling with the deluge of media input they receive, and their desire to act out the archetypal plot lines they identify with. They get conflicting messages from adults about what is acceptable and what is not. All of these difficulties are what allow children to grow and learn the intricacies of social communication. It is their work, and their play.

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When we look closely at what any child endures in a day, we can clearly see how hard and confusing it must be, yet we often expect children to meet their challenges with the kind of calm confidence most adults struggle to achieve. It’s hard to empathize, too when we are tired, overwhelmed or stressed (self care is important!) I think a good starting point is simply shifting our expectations of children, and giving ourselves the reminder that even a seemingly difficult child is struggling to get their needs met. I’ve heard it said that children ask for love in the most unloving ways, and I’ve come to find that this is true. It is our responsibility to meet our children where they are and give them tools to handle what life dishes out. This practice fosters connection, trust, self esteem, and yes…empathy. Call me an idealist, but I feel that if empathy was at the forefront of our interactions in school, our homes and the community at large, we would see our world change for the better. And the children who have grown to have empathetic responses to problems and people will go on to create an altruistic, charitable society for generations to come.

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