What struck me in the above definition of "empathy" was the last part 'without having the feelings fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner." OH how are kids struggle with this, picking up social cues might as well be rocket science.
When Matthew first came to us we quickly entered the wonderful world of traditional talk therapy, and well I didn't feel we really accomplished much in regards to his attachment and trauma issues, the one thing that each therapist we worked with focused on was identifying feelings. This was SO essential for Matthew. The ONLY feeling he knew and understood was MAD!! Anytime feelings were discussed he would say he was MAD. In reality all that MAD was really covering up the actual feelings; sadness, frustration, disappointment, guilt and so many more. In order for our kids to understand the feelings of others they have to first understand and recognize their own feelings! I realize that this is much easier said then done. As a former Special Education teacher I had worked with a lot of children who needed direct instruction in recognizing feelings. I treated recognizing feelings as a skill just like learning your addition facts. AND just like trying to teach addition facts to kids, you HAVE to make it fun!
One of the things Matthew's therapist had was a poster like this:
He LOVED this poster, so we used it often in many ways :) I think the silly faces helped him at first, it made it less "real" and more of a game. We had the poster up in our living room area and in his room. We would often look at it and point out what we were feeling. This gradually got us away from "MAD" being the only feeling and it greatly expanded his "feeling" vocabulary. Many times he was just picking random faces he thought were funny, that was perfectly okay! Remember the goal right now is to just understand different feelings. Whatever, he picked we would talk about! Eventually I began to make him explain why he was feeling that way and he began reflecting more accurate feelings.
Once he was getting good at identifying his feelings with the faces we began taking pictures of him or collecting pictures from the internet of different feelings to make it more 'real' when identifying feelings. We played matching games with the funny cartoon pictures and real pictures, we identified situations and what feelings he might feel, we practiced making faces on demand (I would call out a feeling and he would make the face and vice-versa). It became a fun time for us and made feelings less scary. We talked about feelings ALL. THE. TIME. I would identify my feelings ALL. THE. TIME. I would point out feelings on TV shows, movies, friends, etc. ALL. THE. TIME.
At this point it was just about identifying feelings, what the feelings are, feelings vocabulary, identifying feeling faces in others and himself. It was not about empathy or how to react to others feelings yet, he had to have the knowledge first!
Next Blog Post we will begin to address making the transition between identifying feelings and applying that knowledge!