Kids’ development of empathy is aided by Cognitive Psychology
Stress for SuccessAugust 20, 2013
Empathic kids handle stress better, according to Gustavo Carlo, the Millsap Professor of Diversity in the Missouri University of Human Development and Family Studies. Carlo explained, “Empathetic kids are generally good at regulating their emotions and tend not to lose their tempers. … you’re less concerned about yourself and more considerate of others. On the other hand, impulsive children are more self-focused and have difficulty engaging in problem-focused coping.”
To develop greater empathy for others, we need to start by developing it for ourselves. To do that, it’s important to understand how thoughts, feelings and behaviors are intertwined.
Teach your kids Cognitive Psychology
Most kids, and frankly many adults, have no idea that their thoughts, emotions and behavior are inextricably linked. First, understand Cognitive Psychology (CP) so you can then teach your children about it. This will help them handle all stress better and enhance understanding of everyone’s behaviors, thus allowing more empathy to develop.
Here’s the basics of CP:
Your thoughts (self-talk) determine your emotional reactions, which determine
your behavior, which greatly influence your outcomes in situations.
If you don’t like your outcome you must change your thinking. So lesson number one is to become more aware of your thoughts. Kids typically are not.
It’s important as a parent, then, to have on-going and age appropriate conversations with your kids about how their emotional reactions are not completely caused by an event but are far more caused by what they say to themselves about the event.
For example, a seventh grade girl came home from a school dance swearing to never return to another. She explained that none of the boys asked her to dance because she’s such a “frump”. Can you see that her upset is more from her calling herself a frump than the situation of not being asked to dance? What else might she be telling herself about it?
Tempting as it is, don’t just automatically respond that she’s not a frump. Instead, explore her interpretation further. Say something like, “If I felt like a frump I wouldn’t want to return to another dance, either.” Let her continue to talk about it. Paraphrase her along the way. You may discover that she’s also telling herself, ““I’m such a loser. No one will want to dance with me.”
Once it feels like she has expressed herself and she feels understood by you, you can make the point that most of her upset is from what she’s saying to herself. Ask her how she thinks she comes across when she’s feeling like a loser and frumpy. Does she look away from boys? Does she frown? Help her make the connections between her putting herself down in her thoughts leading to her lack of eye contact making her less attractive to the boys not asking her to dance.
Teach her how to change her interpretation - her self-talk - to change how she feels emotionally. She could learn to say, “OK, I feel uncomfortable in these situations but I need to make myself look interested in the other kids by looking them in the eyes and smiling.” Over time she can learn how her thinking (based on her beliefs about herself and the world around her) determines her emotions, which then go on to determine her behavior bringing about the outcome of not being asked to dance.
Teach her to change her thoughts to change her moods.
Explain that simply thinking positive thoughts won’t necessarily produce her desired results. “I’m beautiful and all boys want to dance with me,” is unrealistically positive. It’s far more important to be rational and reasonable in your thoughts.
In these conversations be sure to respect that your child’s emotional reaction and accept that it isn’t wrong. She feels what she feels based on how she’s interpreting the situation. Your parental challenge is to get her to understand that changing her interpretations is not only within her control, it will lead to better moods and a greater understanding of what everyone else experiences, as well.