Category: Feelings

How to Raise an Empathetic Child: Tips From a Mother, Grandmother, and Educator


Brain scientists, educators, economists, and public health experts all agree that building a good foundation for healthy relationships begins at birth. The earlier that your child can adapt and develop key social-emotional skills — like attentiveness, persistence, and impulse control — the sooner they can begin engaging in healthy social interactions.

Young children aren’t necessarily born with the skills to engage in healthy relationships, but they ARE born with the potential to develop them. 

Parents can teach young children empathy by being the example. Show empathy daily to your children, family, and others in your community. When you show empathy, talk it through with your child and be attentive to their feelings. Use language like: “I know that was hard for you, you seemed sad but you’re safe and loved.” This language will help children become aware of their own emotions and feelings and it will help them become empathetic to others.

A Quick Empathy Checklist for Parents:
  1. Explore your child’s emotions together and engage them in imaginative play to learn how to express feelings and better manage their emotions before starting preschool.
  2. Teach your child that it’s okay to have whatever feeling they are having — anger, frustration, embarrassment, fear, even rage —  but that it is not acceptable for their actions to cross over and affect someone else negatively.
  3. Teach your child that it’s good to pay attention to others’ feelings and to try to understand why someone else is having negative feelings. There is probably a good reason their friend is feeling angry or afraid.
  4. Teach your child that it’s never okay for them or anyone else to use their feelings as an excuse to hurt or yell at someone. 

Parents play an important role along with teachers in laying a strong foundation for social-emotional skills that will help children form healthy relationships.

Family Activities to Practice Empathy

Here are two fun family activities that you can do at home with your little one to help teach them about empathy:

Make a Kindness Tree

The Kindness Tree is a symbolic way to record kind and helpful actions. Family members place leaves or notes on the tree to represent kind and helpful acts. Parents can notice these acts by saying, “You __(describe the action)__ so __(describe how it impacted others)__. That was helpful/kind!” For example, “Shubert helped Sophie get dressed so we would be on time for our library playdate. That was helpful!”

The Kindness Tree can also grow with families who have children of mixed ages. Initially, young children simply put a leaf on the tree to represent kind and helpful acts. As children grow and learn to write, the ritual evolves to include writing the kind acts down on leaves or sticky notes. Start your own Kindness Tree with this template.

Families with older children can simply use a Kindness Notebook to record kind acts and read them aloud daily or weekly.

Create a "We Care" Center

The We Care Center provides a way for family members to express caring and empathy for others. Fill your We Care Center with supplies like first aid items (Band-Aids, wet wipes, hand sanitizer, scented lotion), card-making supplies (preprinted cards, paper, crayons, sentence starters), and a tiny stuffed animal for cuddling.

When a friend or family member is ill, hurt, or having a hard time, your family can go to the We Care Basket to find a way to show that person you care. At first, parents might need to suggest how and when to use the We Care Center, but your children will quickly understand the intent. The We Care Center encourages the development of empathy by providing a means for children to offer caring and thoughtfulness to others every day.

Helping Children Identify Their Emotions

Key Takeaways:
  • Identifying emotions helps children communicate their feelings and provides them with tools to feel confident expressing themselves.
  • Encourage children to notice their physical and behavioral expressions of different emotions.
  • When children are aware of their emotions they can practice more effective regulation strategies.

Emotions can be confusing and overwhelming for adults, so just imagine how it must feel for a young child. Children feel a vast array of emotions daily, sometimes experiencing quick shifts between each one. On top of that, children are realizing that they can have multiple feelings at the same time. It’s a lot!

“Big” emotions (e.g. anger, sadness) can be particularly challenging for children who don’t yet know how to communicate and manage their feelings effectively.

Encouraging children to label and describe their feelings, both in everyday moments as well as during times they’re experiencing difficult emotions, can help children build emotion awareness.1 However, it is important to keep in mind that discussions about big and difficult emotions happen best after your child has had time to decompress!

When children have a greater awareness of their emotions and a vocabulary to communicate their feelings, they have the tools to tell you how they are feeling, which allows them to seek help and work on emotion regulation strategies.1

So the next time your child feels upset, they might recognize the sensation of a faster heartbeat, tenderness in the throat, and increased body temperature — and think to themselves, “I’m feeling angry.” This awareness can lead to action, seeking comfort from an adult or taking some time to cool off.

As children build their emotional literacy, they develop confidence in the way they experience their own emotions and learn that feelings can change.2 As children grow older, their understanding of emotions evolves with time.

What does identifying emotions look like at different ages?

3-4 years

  • Labeling distinct emotions, like “happy” and “sad.”
  • Using language to describe their feelings, “I feel happy when I pet the cat.”
  • Exploring that they have different ways to express different feelings, “I stomp my feet when I’m mad and I laugh when I’m happy.”
  • Trying out a variety of ways to show their feelings, and noticing how others receive and respond to those feelings.

4-5 years

  • With adult support, identifying which regulation strategies work for them, and beginning to practice them independently.
  • Understanding that feelings can change or have different levels of stimulation, (e.g., the feeling of frustration as opposed to anger).
  • Exploring the idea that you can feel more than one feeling at the same time.

5-6 years

  • Beginning to understand more complex emotions like worry and trust
  • Expressing that their feelings change throughout the day.
  • Identifying appropriate ways to express their changing emotions in different contexts.
  • Increased confidence and autonomy in choosing regulation strategies and communicating emotions.
Here are some ways to help your child assess their emotions:
  • Model emotion awareness in your own life. 3 When your child sees you experiencing feelings, name them: “I’m feeling really sad that we can’t visit Grandma right now. I really miss her.”
  • Help children understand the connection between body language, facial expressions, and emotions by specifically pointing them out. 3 For example, “I can see that you are hiding behind me and covering your face, are you feeling scared?”
  • When you’re playing pretend or telling stories, have the characters express a range of emotions and play out different scenarios. 4 Role play and storytelling are excellent ways to learn about and practice emotions!
  • Let your child feel their feelings—the good, the bad, and the ugly. 5 Try not to convince them that they’re “fine,” when they’ve expressed (possibly very loudly, and of course in public), that they are not in fact fine. Let them experience and process their emotions. Afterward, have a conversation about appropriate ways to manage their emotions in the future.

May 2, 2021 by Noelle Yoo 0 Comments

How Journaling Can Foster Community During Times of Stress and Uncertainty

As a third grade teacher at an independent school in Boston, I knew that my school was doing all it could to prepare teachers for the 2020-21 school year. But in the summer of 2020, I was constantly feeling stress, anxiety, and frustration. After being remote for several months, I wondered: Will I feel safe going back into our school building? Is it possible to build a community over Zoom? How will we make sure everyone will follow the health and safety guidelines? What about all the kids in schools that won’t be able to reopen? 

The beginning of the school year always marks an exciting new journey for students, and I wanted to create the same enthusiasm for the new school year that I always had. I didn’t want to bring my negative emotions into my time with the children. I needed to be there for them so that they could feel a sense of normalcy. Now, I laugh that I thought hiding my emotions would help create normalcy.

There was nothing normal about this year.

In the same way that vulnerability in a time of unpredictability is scary and uncomfortable for adults, I quickly learned that the children in my classroom were experiencing those same feelings of worry, fear, and concern. 

What makes children and adults different is that children don’t have the same tools as adults do to process emotions. 

The physical distance we had to keep, not being able to see each other’s faces through masks, and the rigidity and time-consuming nature of the health and safety rules while instituting an important level of safety were obstacles for community building.

Journaling together was one way that my students and I combatted the stress of the year and built community in our third grade classroom, against the odds.

Every day, my co-teacher and I set aside 15-20 minutes to play calming music, sit with our journals, and write with the kids. 

The purpose of this time was empowering students with strategies for calming their bodies and minds, and showing them how a journal can be used as a mode for expression and reflection. As I wrote, I used a document camera to project my own journal.  One day I created a comic strip about what I did over the weekend and the next I wrote a poem about how I miss seeing my grandparents. There were no rules. Want to write a poem? Awesome. Want to draw a picture? Amazing. Need to take the day to just think? Great choice. 

How we set up this space for children has been an important element of its success. The factors that have made this time engaging and meaningful are that the children are encouraged to use real life and prompts to inspire their authoring; they are free to create with or without a set structure; the time is passion-oriented and student-directed with teacher support (Bruyère & Pendergrass, 2020). 

We closed out our journaling time with a share-circle. Sharing was always optional. Some kids chose to share every day. It took other kids time, watching their peers share for weeks before wanting to share. Share-circles offer children an opportunity to build confidence in their writing, reading and even speaking abilities when sharing orally. They help to establish a sense of community and offer the chance to share important home-school connections as well as learn new things about their peers, developing deeper, more authentic relationships with classmates (Routman 2004; Hall 2014).

This year, the transformation and healing that journaling and share-circles brought to each of us as individuals and to all of us as a community, was empowering. In a time and space that can feel so isolating and uncertain, this became a daily moment of community and unity.

Here are a few steps that you can try to encourage journaling in your classroom or home:

  1. Find two journals or make your own (fold and staple several pieces of paper together). If you’d like, spend a day decorating and designing your journal with your child(ren) with whatever materials you have available.
  2. Find a calm space you can write (or draw) together with your child(ren). 
  3. Consistency is important. Set up a consistent time to sit down for 15 minutes and write together. It can be daily, weekly, before bed, at breakfast — whatever works for you. 
  4. Offer a few minutes at the end to share with each other. Keep it optional and communicate expectations for feedback. It can be helpful at the beginning to model what it looks and sounds like to share something personal. 
  5. Keep it open and have fun!

May 2, 2021 by Veronica L Tapia 0 Comments

Parenting with a Big Heart

This week, my four-year-old daughter, Abigail Rose, told me that her best friend had punched her at school. I asked if she had told her teacher what happened and she said yes, and that he had gotten in “big trouble” for what he did. 

Rather than being pleased her friend had been disciplined, my daughter was sad about it.  

“Mom, I asked Ms. Valerie if his time out could be over because he already said he was sorry, and I already forgave him and he’s my friend,” she told me. 

My big-hearted baby girl is growing up so quickly and I am so proud of so many of the choices she makes every day:

choices to be kind, gracious, loving, and compassionate. No one is even allowed to kill a bug in her presence because she says that God put her in this world to help care for all creatures, big and small. 

So, how did I ever get so lucky? Truly, I don’t think luck has anything to do with it.

Children, from the earliest age, begin to absorb everything around them. The things they see, feel, hear, and experience in their earliest years of life become a part of who they are and who they will one day become. Our children may not remember every moment of their early childhood, but what they will always remember is how we made them feel. How I treat them now is how they will grow up to treat others.

My Abby is incredibly sweet and a wonderful little human, but she is also sassy and spicy and she gives me a run for my money! 

I see so much of myself in her and whenever she is giving me a hard time, I try my best to react in love because I know that on my hardest days, I need a little extra love, too.

When she cries because it’s clean up time and the floor is literally covered in toys to the point where you can no longer see the carpet underneath, I validate her feelings and we clean up together because I know how it feels to be overwhelmed. When she is on edge right before her dance recital, I try to remember that she has a tummy full of butterflies and I let her know that it is okay to be nervous and that I’ll be there to support her, no matter what. I live by the golden rule with my children, always keeping in mind how I might feel in their shoes. 

My second child, August Rain, was born with a neural tube defect that completely turned our world upside-down. He had a major spinal surgery at four months old, multiple hospitalizations, and a variety of challenges that we faced together as a family in his first two years of life. 

There were times I held my daughter as I cried over her baby brother and I would explain that Mommy was feeling sad and scared and that everyone feels those things sometimes but what’s important is that we talk to someone that can help us to feel better, that we cry when we need to and that we don’t try to hide how we feel. I do not hide my heart from my children, I share it with them. 

I see now how those experiences have left life-long impressions on my daughter’s heart. Last week, I had a mini meltdown at my computer when August interrupted me for the 500th time while I was busy working and I just couldn’t hold back my tears any longer. 

Abby came up and said, “It’s okay, Mommy, I’m here to help you feel better.” Oh, my heart. 

Becoming a special needs mom has made me even more passionate about my mission to spread kindness by raising kind kids. 

I believe that the best way to raise kids with big hearts is to parent with a big heart. We lead by example and it can be incredibly challenging to be that role model of grace and kindness all the time but when we see our babies growing into these amazing, compassionate little people, it is absolutely worth it.

March 16, 2021 by Michelle Vinson 0 Comments

Calming Down is Hard To Do

Tantrums and meltdowns are high-stress moments for children and caregivers alike. As grown-ups, we want to help children process and control their strong emotions so moments like these occur less frequently. 

But before we can start teaching self regulation — helping children manage their emotions and behaviors — we need to lay the groundwork. Remember: Young children just recently learned to walk, talk, and control their bladders. Jumping right to managing emotions can be a heavy lift! 

Here are three important prerequisites that we should work on before helping children learn to control their emotions: 

  1. Put Safety First

Before children are able to self-regulate, they need to feel safe both physically and emotionally. They need to know that their grown-ups support them and are going to listen to them and protect them. You help your child feel emotional security by sticking to a daily routine and by building time into your routine to listen and talk. Knowing that they have your attention gives children a sense of security. It also helps them feel safe to talk about feelings and gives you an opportunity to validate their thoughts and feelings. When you intentionally give affection and praise and even say the words “you are safe,” it helps children feel secure. It seems simple, but it’s powerful, especially after big emotions or moments of uncertainty. 

  1. Build Connections

It’s important to build a positive relationship, rooted in trust, before attempting to teach children more advanced skills. You do this by being present and making eye contact; giving a high five or a hug; and playing! When you play together, let your child take the lead. Even 10 minutes a day can make a big difference. This Connected Families video: Spending Special Time With Your Child has more tips on building connections. 

  1. Lead the Way

You’re a role model to the children in your life; they will mirror what they see YOU do. When they see you face frustrations and work through them in a positive way, they learn how to do it themselves. You don’t have to give a child a play-by-play of a frustrating work call, but you can talk to them, in age-appropriate ways, about how you feel and what you do about it. Having a meltdown from feeling strong emotions is expected from young children, and we can help them process their feelings by modeling self-awareness and showing them how to express feelings in healthy ways.

  1. Introduce the Feelings

Before a child can regulate emotions, they have to know how to identify those feelings with words — from happy to sad to angry. Talk about what our faces look like when we’re sad or what our bodies feel like when we’re mad. (This Connected Families video, Labeling and Acknowledging Emotions, will help learn more about the feelings.) 

After you build trust, help your child feel safe, and guide them in understanding emotions, then you get to work with him or her learning to manage emotions — especially the BIG feelings that can lead to tantrums, meltdowns, and stress. 

March 16, 2021 by Dana Stewart 0 Comments

How to Help the Kids in Your Life Grow Self-Esteem and Confidence

All parents want their children to feel good about themselves, but what if they don’t? 

Don’t worry — not feeling confident at times is normal for many children. There are many strategies that parents can use to help their children understand themselves and build confidence. 

As a teacher and a mom, this question about confidence reminds me of the story of a student in my 2s classroom years ago. He was really sad at drop-off most mornings and quiet and withdrawn throughout the day. His mother had explained to me that, while her older son had been totally ready for school at 2 years old, she wasn’t sure that her “baby” could manage it. She had resorted to bribing him each morning with a mini marshmallow so she could leave the classroom without a major meltdown, which left him immobile, on the rug, working hard at containing his two-year-old sadness. I guessed that her uncertainty had affected his confidence in the classroom.

Through trial and error, I discovered that I could coax him out of his shell with puzzles. Every day, I greeted him with a new “tricky” puzzle that he would quickly solve. As his confidence in the classroom grew, so did his ability to say goodbye to Mom with confidence and enjoy his day at school. As it turned out, the key to cheerful mornings for this little guy was linked with self-confidence. 

For young children, a strong sense of self contributes to self-esteem and confidence. Children who feel worthy and capable perform better in school, and are more accepting of people who are different from themselves. 

Here are three ways you can help to boost your child’s self-confidence.

  1. Your love and attention builds identity and confidence. YOU are your child’s first and best “identity teacher.” From their earliest moments of life, babies are learning about who they are through their interactions with you and  the other grown-ups in their lives. Waves, big smiles, and loving cuddles teach babies that they are valuable, important, and worthy of love. This works for big kids (and grown-ups!) too. Find time to make them feel like they’re the most important person — give them your undivided attention, listen respectfully to their ideas, and sprinkle compliments liberally. 
  2. Let them be great. People develop confidence in their abilities through experience. Help your child find something that they’re great at, and give them many opportunities to succeed. Like my little friend from class years ago, that feeling of, “I can do it!” will ripple into other areas of life.
  3. Help them feel safe and welcome. Help your child find spaces where he or she can feel a sense of belonging. It may be with your extended family, at a religious or cultural organization, on a sports team or after school club, or simply with other kids on your block. Being with a group who is “just like me” (in  some ways, not necessarily in every way) will help validate that part of your child’s identity.