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.
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.
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 judgemental/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.
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?