KatieOlthoff.com participates in affiliate marketing and other forms of advertising. We only recommend products and services we believe in and think they will be of use to you. As such, posts on this website may contain affiliate links. For more information, please read my disclosure policy. Thank you for your support of this website and our family.

Empathy: The Empathy Reflex

**This post is part of a series I've been doing on empathy.  For other posts on how to show empathy and teach your children empathy, click here.**

Last week, I wrote about the importance of empathy and asked how you show or encourage empathy.  Today I want to share with you a concept that serves two purposes:
1.  It diffuses the situation at hand.
2.  It helps children learn about their emotions.
empathy for kids
John Medina, author of Brain Rules and Brain Rules for Baby, calls it the Empathy Reflex and says that it should be your first response to any emotional situation.  This is how it works:
1.  Describe the emotions you see in the other person.
2.  Guess why they are feeling that way.
empathy reflex
I’ve tried this with varying degrees of success.  I think it takes some practice, at least for me.  I tend to be a little judgmental/critical (people who know me know that might be an understatement) so this is definitely NOT a “reflex” for me yet.  But an emotional 3 year old at home has given me plenty of opportunities to practice.

Adam:  Mom, will you play gominoes with me?
Me:  Sure, when I’m done feeding Isaac.
Adam cries or pouts.
Me:  Oooh, You’re sad.  Are you sad?
Adam: Uh-huh. (still crying.)
Me:  I think you’re feeling jealous.  Jealous is the feeling when you want Mommy or Daddy to play with you, but we’re taking care of Isaac.  Are you feeling jealous? 
Adam: Uh-huh. (starts to calm down a bit.)
At this point, I can try distracting him or suggesting something for him to do while he waits.

Although the empathy reflex does not always calm him, it certainly helps.  I’ve used it with Adam, my husband and my students.  It worked really well with one of my 6th graders.
teaching empathy
But possibly even more important in the long run, Adam has just learned a label for his emotion.  The first step to understanding others’ emotions is understanding your own.  So helping children recognize their own disappointment, frustration, anger, excitement, fear and other strong emotions sets them up to identify the same emotions in others.
Try it and see what you think.  Then come back and tell me how it worked.  Did it work better with different people?  Different emotions?  Did it feel awkward or do you already react with some version of the empathy reflex?

Would you like to comment?

  1. we do the same thing in our house... we are not big on punishing our kids, but we sit down and talk to them and let them know how their actions affect other people and how they make other people feel. and we talk about their own emotions as well. in the long run i think that serves them better than taking away a toy.... they learn more about other people's feelings as well as their own.

  2. We also practice this in our family. We've had a few hiccups with it though, Josiah's Awana teacher didn't quite know what to think when he kept telling her "clean up makes me frustrated". She was concerned about his anger, I was impressed he was using his words :) We had him stop (used it to teach respect for authority) even though I agreed with him that having to line up and change rooms every 20 mins would be frustrating.

  3. I think that is brilliant and we do this a lot with Jemma. We do a lot of role playing too. She (like her mother) gets very emotional and reacts. We have listened as she plays with others and listened to her encounters and then we role play how it happened and then how she could have handled it better. It has really made a difference in how she handles things and it plays into her dramatic side! I swear she is going to win an Oscar one day!

  4. I'm going to try this with the girls. We had had quite a bit of pouting and grumbling this summer, and maybe it's time to take a closer look! Great post!

  5. Thanks for this post - this is a great idea! Our Miss 4 has Asperger's Syndrome, and struggles a lot with understanding her own emotions and those of others. Usually it is all too frustrating to try to understand, and she ends up throwing a tantrum, and getting in trouble. I am definitely going to give this a go :-)

  6. Such great technique for parenting - needed even more for this as you parent boys who tend to act out rather than feel or recognize and verbalize their emotion (mom of three now 19 16 12). A great tool I have to recommend is a book that has nothing to do with your kids but everything about the wonderful word lists in the book - "Raising your Spirited Child" she offers positive descriptive words for every emotion and action in the book (persistent and determined, not stubborn) - and since children often internalize labels it was such a great investment. In paperback