Teaching Empathy to Anxious Kids

The complete lack of empathy shown by the perpetrator of the Sandy Hook shooting has reminded many parents and educators of the need to encourage empathy in their children and students.  Although some amount of empathy comes naturally to most humans, it is important to nurture its development during childhood.  Anyone who lives or works with children knows that kids can be inconsistant in their ability to understand and respect the feelings of others.  Teaching empathy requires patience and, well, empathy.  Over-punishing a child for selfishness can backfire and lead to self-pity and anger.  You probably already know how to cultivate empathy in children.  Anxious children may require special considerations, though.  Here are a few tips for teaching empathy to anxious kids:

1. Watch for over-empathizing.
Sometimes, when children become overwhelmed by empathy, they behave as though they don’t care at all. They may ignore the people with whom they are supposed to empathize, or they may insist that those people’s feelings aren’t important. They may joke about tragedy or make fun of victims. Differentiating between callousness and behaviors intended to protect from over-empathizing can be very difficult. Rely on past behavior patterns, as well as professional opinion. If your child or student is typically compassionate and thoughtful and then becomes crass about a particular situation, it’s possible that he is actually trying to minimize his own anxiety about the situation. Forcing him to practice empathy could exacerbate his anxiety. On the other hand, if your child or student has a history of ignoring other people’s feelings, contact an expert.

2. Anxiety isn’t an excuse, but it is an obstacle.
When a child is overwhelmed by anxiety, it can be extremely difficult for her to practice empathy. If your child or student is rude or thoughtless during a period of extreme anxiety, it’s okay to remind her that anxiety isn’t an excuse for meanness. However, it’s also important to remember that an anxiety disorder is a serious and painful mental illness. Until your child or student’s anxiety wanes, keep criticism calm and focused: “I know you’re feeling very anxious, but it’s not okay to yell at Viktor” is fine; “I don’t care if you’re scared! Go to your room!” is not. When the anxiety does fade, address the child’s behavior and offer solutions for future crises. For example, a child who snaps at his sister when he panics may practice saying “I have anxiety and can’t talk now” instead. If your child or student uses anxiety as an excuse for cruelty, contact an expert.

3.  It’s okay to let empathy go.
Anxious kids, especially those who tend to obsess, may become fixated on other people’s suffering. If your anxious child or student seems preoccupied with someone else’s suffering, suggest taking a break from empathy. Praise the child for his compassion and concern, and remind him that tragedy reminds us to be grateful and enjoy what we have. Suggest actions your child or student can take to help the people who have suffered, and then, after those actions have been taken, change the focus to something positive. If your child cannot overcome guilt or anxiety about the suffering of strangers, contact your pediatrician or mental health professional. If your child or student seems to enjoy fixating on the suffering of others, contact an expert.

4. Empathy comes naturally.
For most children, the ability to empathize develops over time. Young teens are similar to young children in that they tend to be very egocentric. That’s totally normal. Keep teaching and practicing empathy, and don’t worry if your child or teen goes through stages of selfishness. If your child or student is consistently unable or unwilling to empathize with others, contact an expert. Antisocial Personality Disorder is a serious and potentially dangerous mental illness that is characterized by a lack of empathy. Only a professional can diagnose this illness.  More information here.

5. Empathy goes both ways.
It can be difficult for mentally healthy or mentally normative individuals to empathize with people with mental illness. In the classroom, it’s important to help all students understand and empathize with mental illness. (Don’t single out your anxious students, though!) At home, it’s important to make sure the whole family empathizes with an anxious child. The best way to learn to empathize with someone is to learn more about them. Find a book or two about anxiety, and ask questions.  Many people find anxiety disorders confusing because they hear “anxiety” and forget the “disorder” part.  Anxiety is a normal and manageable part of life.  An anxiety disorder is a serious illness that cannot be willed away.  While you teach your chid to empathize, make sure she is also receiving empathy , both from others in her life and from you.

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One thought on “Teaching Empathy to Anxious Kids

  1. Thank you for writing these helpful articles. I am learning so much from them. They are helping me with my own anxiety and also to be more skilled with the lovely children around me.

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