Building Empathy in Tough Kids

I can’t say I was surprised.

When my children escaped the foster care revolving door and came to live with me, all six lacked age-appropriate social skills. They’d never heard of etiquette. They struggled with taking turns and sharing – especially food. And from living in the moment like most kids from hard places, they couldn’t relate to the feelings of others.

Everything’s about me.

Their survival mentality from early trauma and FASD left little room for empathy – yet underscored the need to learn. An opportunity awaited for me –  the parent – to teach.

We started simple – with basic manners. Please. May I. Thank you. You’re welcome. I modeled the correct behavior over and over. Then I offered gentle, playful reminders at the kitchen table – serving those who used their words appropriately. Not immediately serving those who didn’t.

Did someone ask for something?

Everyone laughed. Soon my children caught themselves in the act.

When together as a family in public settings, I remained ever mindful to put my words into actions – because six sets of eyes watched my every move. After all, kids only know what they see and experience. And mine had seen way more negatives than positives in their lifetimes.

That straight-forward, repetitive approach worked. Outside of the home, I witnessed them saying please, thanking servers for their food and holding doors open for everyone. In almost every instance, they received immediate feedback about their manners – which, in turn, generated more of the same.

Next came social interaction. Initially, we played simple board or card games (no Monopoly at first) and followed the rules – usually for 30 minutes to an hour. Quitting wasn’t allowed, although we took a breather on occasion. And that was ok too.

board game

Following many months of play, the prevailing attitude went from winning the game at any cost to simply enjoying the time with each other.

Control of others decreased. Gracious losing increased. Once again, modeling was essential. Patience and do-overs became part of the game.

Without question, I knew my children were ready for more. 

Each night for more than a decade, we watched one classic television episode on DVD  – something with timeless values and believable story lines. Then I read out loud for 30 minutes – every genre from fiction to biography, always open to suggestions.

Years later as an adult, my most traumatized son fondly recalled those special family moments. He felt safe. He felt loved. He felt valued. He knew I cared. Yet voicing his feelings as a child wasn’t possible. Too risky. What if I didn’t agree with him?

With a lack of self-confidence, he chose to remain silent.

Hands-down, Michael Landon’s Little House on the Prairie and the Laura Ingalls Wilder books were everyone’s favorites. With a little push, I even engaged everyone in meaningful discussion – where no answer was ever judged.

Laura and Nelliw

That’s when we began to explore human emotions. What did Laura do when Nellie Oleson manipulated other people? What was Mary’s and Laura’s reaction when Pa confronted their poor choices? What was Ma’s response to Pa’s kindness? What did the family do to survive the winter?

Lots of what’s – with concrete examples. Never why’s – too abstract to fully comprehend.

Talking about other people flowed easier than talking about ourselves. Much easier! Eventually we used the television scenes to segue into real-life situations at home. In safe surroundings without any possibility of shame, my kids began to share their feelings.

Being teased. Not receiving a chance. Sensing doubt. Feeling left out. Trying yet still failing. 

Not surprisingly, a ton of anxiety lay right below the surface. Breaking through past trauma took time. One layer at a time. Most importantly, they felt heard and not dismissed – perhaps for the first time.

With greater awareness of others and their innermost feelings, empathy slowly took root for the first time. Genuine. Not fake – simply hoping for something in return. Helping people – especially those in need – now made sense and reinforced their sense of worth. 

Although my kids struggled to be empathetic toward me, they did much better with other adults and peers – particularly those who were kind. My middle son described this dichotomy brilliantly, “We don’t have to show you all time, because you love us.”

Because you love us

At last, the real work to grow empathy became possible at home. With more modeling, of course. Although I couldn’t control my kids’ emotions, I could control my response to their emotions.

Their intense feelings – the ones they desperately tried to repress at school and in the neighborhood to save face – still erupted at home. While resembling anger on the surface, I finally realized that they were actually fear – peppered with personal pain and uncertainty about the future.

Rather than fueling their enormous need to argue (and providing them proof that I was indeed the bad guy), I stepped back. I carefully showed a better way to respond. And it centered on my empathy towards them – which they somewhat understood and accepted as the norm.

Saying little to nothing worked best for most of my kids. Often I just listened and let them vent and vent some more – never taking the unflattering words personally. Once the storm ended (since I didn’t add to the argument in the first place), I offered my ear. When they were ready, we could have a conversation. And converse we did.

A dialogue, not a monologue.

signRegardless of their ongoing personal growth, a negative situation could throw my children off in a heartbeat. If I didn’t show empathy and backed them into a corner, five of my six displayed the classic “fight or flight” response. Click here to learn more about fight and flight.

In fact – if I continually expected the worst from my kids, I surely got more of the same – perhaps even groom a sociopath in the process, as several mental health professionals implied with two of my children.

But – if I desired a reasonable response from them, I had to take responsibility for leading them down the right path. Not forcing. That’s taken years of sustained effort, connection and diplomacy – with more work to be done in young adulthood, because paths are rarely smooth. The bumps can be intense, particularly when least expected.

In closing, I heard an amazing story on National Public Radio in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma. The wind had ripped the roof off a nursing home in St. Thomas – leaving a number of bedridden patients to suffer the elements and possibly die. But four teens from a damaged juvenile correction facility appeared. They carried them to safety one at a time. 

Individuals, that many judged and forgot, acted bravely given the chance – putting others before themselves. Saving lives.

All of my children probably would have done the same – because of their emerging empathy. Moreover, several would have risked their lives.

Tough kids, no doubt. And I had raised them to maturity by working smarter not harder.  DCP


Craig Peterson publishes EACH Child every Tuesday. To subscribe, open this link and “Like” the page. EACH Child is Special: Working Smarter Not Harder to Raise Every ONE

To learn more about Adopting Faith: A Father’s Unconditional Love, Craig’s soon-to-published memoir about raising six children with special needs, click here: Adopting Faith: A Father’s Unconditional Love

To follow my son Andrew’s inspiring story, “Like” his special Facebook page Andrew Peterson Goes for the Gold

2 thoughts on “Building Empathy in Tough Kids

    1. I read the frustrations of many parents online and always strive to put a positive on the daily challenges we parents face. Thank you for your kind words.

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