Children and empathy: Self-regulation skills

Teaching children self-regulation skills can help them develop empathy.

Children learn how to react in different situations from watching you.

Children learn how to react in different situations from watching you.

In the book “Unselfie: Why empathetic kids succeed in our All-About-Me World,” educational psychologist Michele Borba talks about the importance of empathy, why children are having a harder time developing it and how to help children learn empathy to succeed.

Empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone’s shoes and understand what they are going through; it’s the ability to feel what they are feeling. Why is empathy so important? With ongoing societal issues like bullying, youth mental health concerns, teaching empathy to children is more important than ever.

Empathetic people have the ability to connect with others on a deeper level and can lead to individuals being helpful, involved and invested in other people. In our social society where we have to rely on each other, empathy is an increasingly important tool to connect with the world.

Empathy and self-regulation

Self-regulation refers to skills like self-awareness, self-management, emotional literacy and problem-solving. Basically, those with self-regulation skills have the ability to control not only their thoughts and actions, but also their emotions. When children develop the skills to control their emotions, they have the opportunity to engage in empathy skills like perspective-taking and trying to understand and respect the emotions of others.

Borba suggests ways to help teach your child self-regulation.

Pay attention. Try to figure out how your child experiences stress in their own lives and how they react to distressing situations for other people. Maybe they get stomachaches when they are nervous, avoid situations that are likely to be stressful, have a strong emotional reaction or try to deny the situation. By understanding your child’s emotional needs and reactions, you can be prepared to show them empathy when they need it.

Help your child spot triggers. We all have signs or “tells” that notify us when we are experiencing stress or other strong emotions. We clench our teeth, tighten our muscles, quicken our breath or even feel our hearts pounding. By teaching your child to notice these triggers, you are giving them an opportunity to try to control their reactions before they explode.

Think of it as having house guests; when they arrive unexpectedly you are left rushing around in hopes of preparing everything. But when you know they are coming in advance, you have time to get yourself together and can avoid stressing about it.

Keep your cool. Children learn how to react in different situations from watching you. When a toddler falls down they immediately look to their parent to decide how to react, asking, “Should I be scared, should I cry or should I dust myself off and keep moving?” The same goes for self-regulation.

Children learn how to keep their cool and control their emotions by watching you, so make sure they see you working to handle your emotions. You might tell them, “I am so frustrated that I can’t get the computer to work right. I’m going to walk away for a minute take deep breaths and calm down before I try to solve the problem again.”

Give kids a quiet space. Kids need a space where they can feel safe and relaxed when they need to calm themselves down or process their strong emotions. Make sure you have a space available to your child where they can work on dealing with their stress. You can provide comfy chairs, blankets, pillows and even quiet activities like books or art materials.

For more information visit Dr. Borba’s website. For more articles on child development, academic success, parenting and life skill development, please visit the Michigan State University Extension website.

To learn about the positive impact children and families are experience due to MSU Extension programs, read our 2015 Impact Report: Preparing young children to success and Preparing the future generation for success.” Additional impact reports, highlighting even more ways Michigan 4-H and MSU Extension positively impacted individuals and communities in 2015, can be downloaded from the Michigan 4-H website.

For more information, visit Dr. Borba’s website. For more articles on child development, academic success, parenting and life skill development, please visit the Michigan State University Extension website.

To learn about the positive impact children and families experience due to MSU Extension programs, read our 2015 Impact Reports: “Preparing young children to success” and “Preparing the future generation for success.” Additional impact reports, highlighting even more ways Michigan 4-H and MSU Extension positively impacted individuals and communities in 2015, can be downloaded from the Michigan 4-H website.

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