As we have journeyed down the path to healing from attachment and trauma issues I have noticed my sons development follows a pattern. First he has to understand a concept as it relates to himself. Then he can relate that concept to animals. Then comes others outside of the family. Than finally family members or others who are close to him. Following this circle of relating concepts we began with working on understanding empathy as it related to him. Now that he had developed a "feeling" vocabulary and seemed to understand the concept of different emotions, we began pointing out how those feelings and emotions directly related to him. "You must be so sad that your brother took your toy. I bet you are feeling really mad and hurt. What could your brother do to make you feel better?", these types of conversations would happen often pointing out his feelings for him until he was able to identify his feelings and then helping him come up with ways others could make him feel better. He became very good at identifying what others could do for him!
We have a dog in our house:
(Aren't they adorable!)
Our dog puts up with a lot...and I mean a lot! With a house full of boys he is subject to the normal tail and ear pulling from toddlers, but adding in the emotional and behavioral issues was something that took a lot of adjustment on my part. When the boys first arrived I quickly learned I couldn't leave them alone with the dog. They would kick or push him for no reason at all. Our dog quickly learned he DID NOT want to be around Matthew and he would walk away any time he entered the room. As Matthew began understanding feelings he would get upset that the dog wouldn't want to play with him. I began relating this to Matthew in terms of feelings and empathy. "I bet the dog is scared that you will hurt it like you used to do. I bet you have broken your trust with the dog. Remember when your brother took your toy and you didn't want to play with him anymore?! What kinds of things did your brother do for you to make you feel better? If you were the dog what are some things that would help you earn trust again and make you feel better?" Matthew slowly began to understand this concept and worked really hard to earn trust with the dog. He would pet it (with supervision of course) and ask to give him treats. After a long time the dog began to trust him. Matthew would be so excited when he would come lay on his lap. Today Matthew is the first one to point out when someone is not being nice to the dog or may be hurting the dogs feelings, he apologizes when he accidentally trips over him.
As empathy for animals began to develop I noticed an awakening in Matthew, he actually wanted to have friends. In the past, he hadn't really desired to have friends, he wanted others to play with him but it was more about needing others to play a certain game with him. He was now expressing a desire to have real friends and questioning why others were "mean" to him. In reality other kids were not being men to him, he just didn't understand what a friend was or how to keep friends. He has always been fairly good at the initial making friends part; he is fun and energetic. However, it quickly becomes apparent that he is controlling, bossy, too rough, and way too intense! So the "friends" he makes usually move on to greener pastures after about 15 minutes. At first when he would become upset about kids not wanting to play with him I would sugar coat it. I stopped that pretty quickly, it wasn't helping. I began to be very truthful with him. "The kid doesn't want to play with you because you are being bossy and not taking turns. Remember how you felt when your brother wouldn't take turns with you? How do you think your friend feels? What do you think you could do to help him feel better?" We set up situations at home and practiced. We often had problems when at the playground or home where Matthew would be too rough and hurt another child. Matthew would push someone down and the child would begin to cry, Matthew would run and hide. I helped Matthew come up with specific steps to do if you accidentally hurt someone: Go to the person and ask if they are okay. Help the child get to me or another parent. When the child is feeling better tell them you are sorry and ask if they would like to play. Let them pick what to play. We practiced these steps over and over and over and then one day it clicked. Not only did it click for when he hurt someone, but he began stopping and helping every crying child get to me or an adult, LOL! The other parents thought he was the sweetest kid :) At first it wasn't true empathy, he had been taught a set of steps to follow and he seemed to get attention following them so he kept doing it. Eventually though "fake it till you make it" seemed to prove true!
The hardest was making the empathy connection with our family, it is still a work in progress but he is coming along. Don't get me wrong we still have a lot to do, but I am really pleased with our progress. For us the key has been talking, talking, and talking some more. Direct Instruction of what you want your child to do and then practice the situations. It may seem like they are listening, but at the strangest times they mention something you said and it is clear that they do hear you!