Fostering Empathy in Children

When we purposefully open up opportunities for children to engage in empathic responses, we are supporting them in developing a critical component of relationship development–the ability to understand and share the feelings of others.

In their book All Learning is Social and Emotional, authors Frey, Fischer, and Smith provide several ideas for fostering empathy and equipping children with another positive mode of communication. One such strategy is drawn from restorative practices: “Affective statements allow [us] to express…feelings and emotions by using ‘I’ statements. This shifts the dynamic of the conversation away from accusatory ‘you’ statements that can leave the person feeling defensive. This simple change can develop empathy because the dynamic shifts the discussion from talking to [children] to talking with them. Adding an ‘I’ statement, then, is a way for you to voice your feelings and allow [your child] an opportunity to respond.”

Genevieve Simperingham, parenting coach, states, “Using ‘I’ statements can be very effective when expressing our feelings relating to requests, limits and giving children feedback. Using ‘I’ statements is a way of sharing our feelings and perspective that’s as non-blaming, non-critical and non-shaming as possible.”

When we use ‘I’ statements and provide background, children are better able to grasp the rationale for what we are asking of them. When we teach children how to use ‘I’ statements, it empowers them with choices over their emotions by giving them choices about their words.

Dr. Thomas Gordon, licensed clinical psychologist, shares helpful guidelines for expressing “I” statements:

  • Express what you see or the actual event that happened
  • Express what you feel about what you see or what happened
  • Express why you feel that
  • Give reassurance of trusting and caring for your child (if relevant)
  • Give the child the opportunity to change their behavior or enter dialogue based on this information
  • Express what you expect of your child, but only if they don’t figure it out themselves first

We can model ‘I’ statements for children by using them ourselves. Following are a few examples from Genevieve Simperingham:

  • “Because your play is so loud (information), even though it’s great that you’re having fun (reassurance of caring for their wants), I’m worried (your feeling) that the baby will wake up.” (reason for feeling)
  • “I see that you’re enjoying your play and that it’s 6.30 (information), I’m worried (your feeling) about you getting your homework finished. Would you like to talk through what homework you have?” (opportunity to enter dialogue)
  • “I hear you want me to play. (what you see) I’m feeling torn (your feeling) because I wish I could play with you (reassurance of wanting connection), but I need to make dinner and can’t do both.”

Michelle Ang
Grade 11-12 Counselor, Head of Wellbeing

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