Signs & Symptoms


Having difficulty understanding others' emotions?

Children who have difficulty being part of a back-and-forth conversation may be having difficulty with emotional awareness and emotional reciprocity. Emotional awareness and reciprocity means knowing your own feelings about a topic, being able to read other’s emotions, and offering emotional support as needed.

Young children use words like sad and happy. They notice if someone else is crying or upset. Children with social reciprocity offer comfort and ask questions about people’s feelings. As they get older, children get better and better at identifying and understanding a vast range of emotions. Children and teenagers can express and understand complex emotional states.

Some children seem to be disconnected emotionally. If you ask how they feel, you get “I don’t know” as a response. Your child may say he “never thinks about feelings.” He might puzzle over the question or give a highly intellectual answer.

What do challenges with Empathy look like?

  • Not understanding why someone is crying?
  • Having trouble understanding other people’s emotions?
  • Misidentifying emotions of characters in a book?
  • Noticing every tiny detail in a story but not the perspective of characters?
  • Seeming to lack empathy?
  • Not showing care and concern for others?
  • Making rude comments to peers without realizing it?
  • Getting in trouble for pushing kids out of his or her way in line for recess?
  • Not knowing how to respond to the emotions of peers? For example, if a friend cries about grandma passing away, might your child miss the opportunity to offer comfort and instead say, “Well, she was really old” or “that’s the life cycle”?

Why is Empathy happening?

Empathy is the ability to understand and care about the emotions of other people. The social skill of empathy is not the same as caring about others and how they feel. Many individuals care about others, but empathy requires the ability to truly understand others’ feelings and how to offer support to them. Empathy is involved in making strong connections with others. For example, if a child with empathy notices a child all alone on the playground, he may go over and invite him to play with the group. A young child who lacks empathy may not understand why another child cries and may simply be annoyed. An adult or teen may not understand why a friend is mad or sad and may not realize if a comment was unintentionally hurtful. Someone with low empathy may struggle to show care and concern for others and may have a hard time forming close friendships.

How can I manage Empathy at home?

To help your child with empathy, practice with storybook characters and movie actors. You can read stories with a younger child and discuss the plot afterward, focusing on the emotions and not just on the details of the story. Try watching a T.V. show with no volume and see if your child can guess how the characters are feeling.

Comment on your own feelings and why you feel that way. “Mom is really stressed out because of this traffic. I’m going to take a deep breath and try to find a fun song for us to listen to on the radio.”

It can be helpful to name and label your child’s feelings and to help him determine what may have triggered that emotion. For example, “You look really excited, and you have a lot of energy. I wonder if you are excited about Mary’s birthday.”

Research shows that labeling strong emotions can help to bring down the intensity, which is the foundation of the new term ‘name it to tame it’ by Dan Siegel and Tina Payne-Bryson [6]. For more significant problems with empathy, it would be a good idea to reach out to the school counselor or school psychologist and to consider having your child join a lunch bunch or social skills group to practice empathy skills.

If your child really struggles with the empathy needed to form friendships, it may be worthwhile to consider an evaluation with a psychologist. It is possible that your child has an underlying disability that is at the root of these challenges.

How can Clear Child Psychology help with Empathy?

If your child is struggling with this symptom to the point that it is getting in the way of his or her learning, relationships, or happiness, it’s time to seek professional help.

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