You see your 5-year-old hit the dog, and when you get upset, she laughs and runs off as if it's a game. Your 12-year-old calls his sister an ugly name, and when she starts crying, he shrugs it off and goes to his room. When your children behave badly and then show no remorse, it can be unsettling. You may think that your children are growing up to be bullies or worse. Getting to the root of the issue and helping them to build empathy can address the problem early.
Empathize with your child. It is unlikely that your child is acting out because he is simply "bad." There is probably a bigger issue like that he is feeling angry or frustrated over an unrelated situation. When you show empathy by making statements like "I know it was frustrating when your sister took away your favorite toy" or "It must have made you really angry when that happened" can help to validate your child's feelings and bring his guard down. Modeling empathy can also help your child to show empathy.
Ask him to consider the other person's feelings. Carl Pickhardt, Ph.D., writing for Psychology Today, says it is important to sensitize your child when he does not show remorse. You can do so by saying things like "How do you think it made your sister feel when you called her that name?" or "That probably hurt the dog when you kicked him." Statements like this encourage empathy.
Ask your child to evaluate his own actions. Instead of telling him how wrong he was, ask him if he believes that what he did was OK. If not, ask him to brainstorm ways that he can make the situation better, such as apologizing or making some sort of reparations. If he thinks his behavior was not wrong, ask him to tell you why. Pickhardt says this discussion is important to helping your child understand the moral context of his behavior.
Remain calm throughout your conversation, refraining from yelling and spanking. Maia Szalavitz, a coauthor of "Born For Love: Why Empathy is Essential -- and Endangered," tells "Time" magazine that yelling at or spanking children only increases their fear and does not encourage their understanding. Continued yelling or spanking over the long term encourages children to be more aggressive, which can make them act out more.
- If your child continues to act out without remorse despite your perseverance, there may be an underlying behavioral issue or health condition, such as autism. It is important to have your child evaluated by a medical professional.
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