I Feel… You Feel… Empathy, Compassion, and Inclusion

I want to start with a story about some third graders I watched at a birthday party.  Picture a sunny day with green grass, a tall tree, and 15 children talking and jumping excitedly while parents strung a piñata to a thick branch.  It was time to break the piñata and all the excited children formed a line.  Each one giggled when they were blindfolded and spun around several times.  They all joined in cheering each person as they tried their luck.  However, in the background was one of the children who was in a wheelchair with a broken leg.  While the adults asked him to participate, he opted out.  He enjoyed watching the others swing wildly hitting both the air and the piñata.  Finally, one of the children broke the piñata and the candy fell to the ground.  All the children flew toward the candy and scooped up as much as they could find.  The adults were trying to gather some for the child in the wheel chair, but before they could collect a good amount, one child ran with his huge bounty to the child in the wheel chair.  He gave it all to him, smiled and pushed him to the next activity.  I still cry when I remember this act of empathy, compassion and inclusion.

What is Empathy?

Empathy is a powerful word.  It really means stepping into someone’s shoes and understanding their feelings.  Empathy helps us care for our family members, friends, co-workers, and people we meet each day.  It gives us the power to help those in need and to reduce or share someone’s hardship.  It reduces bullying and brings individuals together in a community.  Empathy starts when someone reads or understands our feelings and then connects with us by showing caring emotions.  Compassion starts when someone offers help.  Empathy can be expressed when someone needs help, is hurt, has strong negative emotions or is even excited and happy.  The first step to empathy is being able to read another person’s emotions.  To start to read emotions we look at someone’s facial and body cues.

Think about all the times during the day you read the facial and body cues of others.  I do when I wake in the morning and check on how my children are feeling.  I do when I give my children a direction or when I say their chores are complete and they can go outside to play.  I do when I see a co-worker and we are speaking on a serious issue or when someone shares an event and experience with me.  I read facial and body cues to know what someone else is thinking and feeling.  When I understand someone’s feelings, I can be a better friend and we can have a stronger relationship.  When I know how someone feels, I can then have empathy for his or her experiences, which means we have a connection and we are more likely to help each other.  When we have a better understanding of each other, we are more likely to lift each other up – true for children and adults.  Just think about the third graders.

Our children learn how to read facial and body cues by watching us do it.  They also learn how to show empathy by watching us do it.  They start to understand other’s emotions in preschool and build on it through childhood.  Building these skills will reduce bullying and will increase acceptance and community building.  We can help our children practice at any age and have fun with it!

A Few Fun Games to Try at Home

Younger Children:

  • Feeling Charades: Have family members pick feelings out of a hat and act those feelings out. Make sure you use your whole body to act those out.  Then you can help your children see both facial and body changes with the feelings.  You also can add in new feeling vocabulary to the hat as you see success (add in exuberant for excited or melancholy or morose for sad and unhappy).  You extend feeling vocabulary and understanding feelings at the same time.
  • Mirror Mirror: Have a hand-held mirror and ask your children to make a facial expression in the mirror. They may really like to see what they look like with different emotions on their faces.  This practice will help him then recognize when others are showing those emotions.  Often children like to make lots of faces into the mirror anyway, so this could be a fun way to connect labels to those faces.
  • Helpful Word List: Have your children develop helpful word lists at home for when they see someone is hurt or when someone is sad or feeling left out. Remember to let children know to use these words when they are in safe situations (for example, not with a stranger).  Helpful words might be:
    • Are you OK?
    • Do you need help?
    • How are you?
    • Do you want to play?

Older Children and Teenagers:

  • Feelings Jeopardy: Have a guessing game where you either act out a situation or talk about a situation and then ask what emotion someone would feel in that situation. An example might be, “A friend forgot that the math test was today until he walked in class and saw the teacher pass out papers.  His face changed from relaxed to…”  Your child would answer, “What is really worried or panicked?”  You can add in, “What can you do to offer help or help him feel he can make it through?”  This extension helps older children begin to see how they can make good decisions for themselves and their friends.
  • What Would You Think or Need?: You can pose different questions to older children and teenagers about what they might feel or think in different situations.  You can also ask them what they would need from a friend.  Help them know that what they think and need is similar to what their friends might think and need.  You can use situations you read in books or see in the media.  You can pause TV shows or stop reading in the book when characters are at a point you think showing empathy would be helpful.  Ask your children, “What would you think or need if this were you?”  You can ask a follow up question like, “So if you were his friend, what would you do to help?”  Older children and adolescents will also begin to form ideas for positive decision making and helpful behaviors that can keep themselves and others safe.
  • How Would You?: You can modify the What Would You Think or Need game to specifically ask about situations where someone is excluded or is teased or bullied.  Use media to help initiate the conversation.  Pause books or TV shows when you see an incident of teasing or bullying and ask, “How would you help the person in need?  How would you offer support?”  Asking children and teenagers these questions gets them thinking about how difficult it can be and how they may act in these hard situations.  Offer praise for any ideas your children think of.  Help them think of ideas too, they will need to know which adults at school and in the community can be helpful and how to talk with them.  They will also need guidance to stay safe in tricky situations.

Good Old-Fashioned Conversation:

We can help reinforce empathy and understanding other people’s emotions by talking about situations at home.  You can talk about a situation where someone noticed your feelings or you felt empathy for someone else.  Talk through the situation and how it felt to connect with another person.  Talk about when you saw your children show empathy and tell them you were proud of them.  Remind them that feeling empathy for others helps them support others and come to the aide of others in need.  We want our children to stand up for what they believe and what others need.  I was so impressed with the third grader who shared his candy cache and included the other child in the wheel chair.  He knew what his friend needed by understanding his emotions and stepping into his shoes.

Recognizing emotions in ourselves and others helps us with building relationships and connecting with others.  Let’s practice with our children so they can continue to connect with friends and understand how others feel.  Let’s build empathy, compassion and inclusion.


Past Posts:


My Kid Said What?!?!

The Calm Instead of the Storm

The EYES Have It

Creating Connection

The EYES Have It! A Strong Connection


Last night when I was saying goodnight to my teenager, I was reminded of the importance of connecting individually with him.  Sounds easy to remember, but I think we all have a tendency to forget and let everyday life get in the way.  Our digital technology can be a definite bonus because the speed of information is quick and we can connect with others easily.  However, we sometimes let it interrupt our personal conversations and time with people important to us.

What happened last night

I went to say goodnight to my teenager in his room.  He had a very active day with a long run in the morning, then a basketball game, and then a team practice.  He was exhausted to say the least.  Because he was so tired, he did not have too much to share at dinner or even before he went to bed.  However, when he was lying down and the lights were off, he starting telling me about a funny event from the day.  The story was nothing really important in and of itself, just a funny story.  At that same moment, I heard my phone beep with a text.  I knew the text was important and contained information I needed to know.  I had to fight the temptation of turning my attention to the familiar beep.  However, I continued to talk with my son and listen to the funny story.  At the end of the story, we said goodnight.

I left the room – thinking…

  • I was tempted to check the phone while he was talking. BUT
  • I was glad I connected with my son because every time I do, he knows I am there to listen. AND
  • If anything big ever happens, I want him to know I will be there to listen and help.


The real connection

It is so easy to allow distractions to pull our attention away from our conversations with our children.  We can so easily tell ourselves that we can read the text or email at the same time as listening to our children, but they notice when we are not making eye contact or when we randomly say, “uh huh” to their statements.  I know I notice when I am talking to someone and they pull their phone out and say, “Hold on a moment.”  It brings up the question, am I as important as the person on the phone?  We have to make sure we put the distractions away and really connect with our children.  The benefits: a) they will internalize that they matter to us, b) they will know we will listen to them if they have a big problem or issue, and c) they will know we will be there for them when they need it.  As an added bonus, we will be modeling how to have a good conversation with others in the age of digital technology and interruptions.

Here is a little reminder about what makes individual connection with our children work.

Literally, the EYES have it

Eye Contact (Make eye contact)

Your Time (Stop other activity and face your children)

Empathy (Show that you are feeling for them as they tell their story)

Special Attention (Don’t let other distractions, like beeps on the phone, pull you away)


My son’s story was not really important, but listening and connecting with him sure was!


Committee on Integrating the Science of Early Childhood Development (2000).  From neurons to neighborhoods:  The science of early childhood development.  Washington, DC:  National Academy Press.

Previous Posts:

Oh No! Why? More on Problem Solving


My Kid Said What?!?!

The Calm Instead of The Storm

Oh No! Why? More on Problem Solving

Imagine this, you are walking down the hallway at work with your files in your arms, and your co-worker, Harry, bumps into you.  Your files go flying with paper scattering everywhere on the floor!  Now you will be late to the meeting and look unorganized!  Frustration and maybe a little bit of anger towards Harry creeps in.  When something like this happens to us as adults, we take a brief minute and think, “Did Harry just mean to do that or was it an accident?”

Turns out this question helps us to analyze a problem or event before we assign blame and get angry, sad, or frustrated.  This question can reduce angry responses when these types of problems happen.  Now hopefully Harry noticed what happened and will help you with your papers, but he may just keep on walking.  How we think about and define problems means a lot.  How do we help our children ask these questions?

  • First things first, we need to help our children calm down when they have a problem. Our brain can think much better when we are calm.  For ideas on how to calm see my other blog post The Calm Instead of the Storm.  I know I say this all the time, but it really is extremely important.
  • Then we need to help cue or signal to our children that they need to think about why the problem happened. Use cue words, like Think Why, to remind them now is the time to decide why the problem occurred.  They will need guidance and help with this process.  You may need to lead the discussion:  “Do you really think your friend meant for that to happen?  I wonder if it was an accident.  Here is why I think it might have been an accident…”
  • Then help them think of ways to solve their problem or handle the event. Again, they will need your assistance and probably a cue like, Think How.  You will find yourself helping them to come up with ideas and you may even guide the steps for solving the problem.  You also can refer to my Eureka! blog post for practicing solving problems.
  • Remember to use praise when children pause and Think Why and How. Let them know they worked hard to solve the problem or handle the event.  Tell them you see them growing up when they go through this process.

An additional helpful hint:

I often suggest for parents to have a picture guide or reminder list for solving problems at home.  This guide should be kept in a place easy to reach in a time of need.  You also can use it after the fact when you are discussing a problem and how it may have been better to solve it.  Have your child make the guide with their own pictures, use pictures they found in magazines or electronic images, or have them write their own guide using keywords.  Here is a sample with pictures and words (you will note that the pictures do not have to be fancy, just something your child will look at and understand):


Have fun with making your guide and remember that learning problem-solving skills takes a lot of practice and support.  It’s ok if it takes a while to learn how to do these steps!

Resource for this and other problem-solving blogs:

Crick, N. R., & Dodge, K. A. (1994).  A review and reformation of social information-processing mechanisms in children’s social adjustment. Psychological Bulletin, 115, 74-101.


Previous Blogs:


My Kid Said What?!?!?

The Calm Instead of the Storm

Creating Connection

Phonemic what? How to Support Your Child’s Reading

Flip-flopping Negative to Positive

My Kid Said What?!?!?!?

We know children learn by watching what we do every day.  I remember some funny stories of when my children imitated my not-so-wonderful moments, like yelling at the slow truck in front of us at the stop light (oops).  However, we actually are able to turn their imitation of our behaviors into moments of positive learning and skill building!

I often describe how to do this when I work with parents in my practice, and I call it Overt Modeling or Purposeful Modeling.  This technique helps to teach any kind of skill to children of any age.  I briefly mentioned this technique in my last post about Calming but thought that giving it more description could be helpful.

  • What does it look like? It is acting, over describing, and using open self-talk so our children can hear.  It is picking one event a day (or more) and openly talking about how you as the adult are thinking through the situation so children can hear you use all the skills you hope for them to use in a similar situation.
  • When can you use it? Overt Modeling can be used anytime when you would like children to learn how to use a skill you’d like them to learn.
    • Calming: You might talk through taking breaths, stretching or taking a break and how it makes your body and mind feel calmer and helps you solve a problem.
    • Social skills: You might talk through looking at the face and body of another person to know how they feel.  You might say that you greeted someone you were nervous to talk to by saying, “Hello.”
    • Problem-solving: You might talk through all the ideas you came up with to solve a problem and how you settled on one of them because it would be the best for everyone.
    • Organizing: You might talk about how you were glad you packed everything for your day the night before because it helped everyone get going on time.
    • Making mistakes: You might talk about mistakes you made and how you worked to fix them, how they ended up not mattering or how the mistake actually was better than the original plan.
  • An example of talking about something from your day: If a child feels everything that happens to them is because someone else wanted to hurt or tease them (but you know that is not true), then an Overt Modeling situation may sound like this:

“I was walking down the hall today at work and Jim turned and bumped into me making my coffee spill all over the floor!  He didn’t even offer to help, just ran by me!  It really made me mad.  BUT I knew had to think through this.  I asked myself, did Jim mean to do this to me? No, it was an accident.  I think he actually was trying to quickly get to a meeting.  I knew this because he ran down the hall to the meeting room and entered quickly.  I am so glad I thought about if Jim really meant to spill my coffee.  It saved me from getting really angry.”

  • Another example of talking about something in the moment: You can use situations in the moment too.  If you are trying to help build your child’s comfort with making mistakes, make one and then talk through how it doesn’t matter or how the outcome is actually better than it might have been without the mistake.

“Oh Goodness! I forgot the chocolate chips for the cookies!  I know we really wanted those cookies today.  I know that was a mistake, but I wonder if there is another idea we can come up with that will make really yummy cookies.  I know, we have cinnamon and sugar! Let’s sprinkle it on each cookie instead.  That will be yummy too!  This mistake actually ended up good – a new yummy cookie recipe!”

Overt Modeling is one of my favorite techniques to talk about with families because they can work in moments to learn skills all through the day.  The end results are positive: children learn these new skills and families build stronger relationships because they are talking and learning together.  Then instead of saying, “My kid said what?!” we can say, “Ah, my kid said what we have been working on!”


Previous Posts:

The Calm Instead of the Storm

Creating Connection

Phonemic what? How to Support Your Child’s Reading

Flip-flopping Negative to Positive

Relationship Lessons from my Cats