The Superpower of Empathy: The Key to Compassion and Meaningful Connection

By Shayna Whitehouse, PhD, School Psychologist,
Healthy Learning Paths Instructor, shayna@reachinghighereducation.com

I was struck while preparing for a recent parent education program.  Parents were sincerely connecting and asking about each other’s family and children.  I saw care in faces, connection through listening and eye contact, and compassion through physical gestures.  As I looked at the group, I hesitated several moments to gather their attention because I saw they were engaging in an important experience with each other, something we all feel and something we all need.  Empathy.

Sometimes I think of empathy as a superpower because of the power it has to encourage cooperation, compassion, and the best in people.  Empathy is part of being human and fosters our ability to play, work and problem solve together because it helps us understand others’ emotions, thoughts and experiences – positive and negative.  It helps us engage meaningfully with another person and for the benefit of another person.  It helps us promote the wellness of another when they are feeling disconnected, uncared for or lost.  As humans, we need connection, caring and compassion.  Empathy gives us the ability to build these connections and form a link to compassion and belonging.

Children look to parents and adults around them to learn how to connect with others and to express care, compassion and emotions.  Empathy is learned through modeling, reinforcement and sincere bonding.  We must remember to model and teach empathy in our fast paced world so our children know how to significantly connect and support one another, to let each other know that we all matter, we all are needed.  We must nurture the superpower of empathy to foster children’s ability to treat others kindly, provide meaningful help, solve problems by balancing other’s needs, and be perceived as a friend and compassionate leader.  Empathy is a superpower that fosters our children’s health, happiness and connections with others.

Empathy preserves our personal relationships to others and enables us to understand others’ experiences and adjust our interactions to promote and protect their wellbeing.  We have to focus on building empathy in our society to preserve our feelings of meaningful belonging and personal compassion and engagement.  My experience at the parent presentation helped me remember how we use the superpower of empathy in everyday life and how we need it and must reserve time to teach our children its meaning and power.  Our world moves quickly, and building that superpower of empathy helps our children know they matter, we need them, and in turn they will share that human connection with others they touch now and in the future.

Tips for modeling empathy and discussing events empathetically with your child:

When your child needs empathy:

  • Put all other tasks and activities aside, take time for a full connection
  • Move to your child’s eye level and make eye contact
  • Show how to truly listen by engaging 100% with your child
  • Allow your face to show and echo the emotions of your child
  • Communicate your child’s feelings back, “Sounds like you feel…”
  • Let them know your emotions while you are listening, “I feel so sad that you had that happen.”
  • Express joy or excitement for positive events, “I see you feel joyful! I am pleased for you!”
  • Provide the physical connection your child needs

When your child observes you empathizing with another individual:

  • Never share more than what your child is ready to hear or needs to hear, but share the connection and human emotions experienced
  • Discuss the emotions of the other person and how those emotions made you feel
  • Make statements of, “That is so difficult for them. I feel for their experiences.”
  • Demonstrate when you share the joy or excitement of another too, “I am so pleased that this event is happening for them. I feel the happiness too!”

When you observe your child empathizing with another individual:

  • Discuss the connection and compassion you observed
  • State, “I am proud of you for connecting.”
  • Discuss how your child may experience big emotions from connecting with another person, and that this means they are growing up into a caring person, reinforce the positives of having these feelings
  • Discuss that these feelings are normal and make your child a caring and strong friend
  • Reinforce that the other person appreciated the connection and it was helpful

Empathy is a superpower that each of us can give and receive.

 

Replace Fear with Power

By Virginia Hrywnak DO- Deputy Executive Director of Healthy Learning Paths, imperfect parent of 2 school-aged daughters, family physician, avid reader, and hiker

Student sees pretend germs to learn effective hand washing.
Student sees pretend germs to learn effective hand washing.

“Let’s start by replacing fear with power by teaching our kids to be Germbusters!”

Contagious and infectious germs.  Scary stuff- with cold and flu season fast approaching, the Enterovirus D68 illness, and the Ebola viral illness in West Africa a lot of us worry about our health and the health of our families.  What can we as parents do?  Let’s start by replacing fear with power by teaching our kids to be GERMBUSTERS!

Start with proper hand washing with soap and water. People often touch their eyes, nose and mouth. Germs can get into the body through these mucous membranes and make us sick. Wash hands using warm water, soap, and at least 20 seconds of friction. What is friction?  In this case, we want to rub our hands together briskly with pressure.  This provides power to remove germs.  Do we need a timer for the 20 seconds?  Not really, just teach kids to sing the ABC’s while rubbing hands together.

Soap and water is a great first line of defense to fight germs.  Hand sanitizer and wipes work in a pinch when there is no access to soap and water, but soap and water works best.  Be consistent.  Kids want to know they need to wash their hands when they get home, before they eat or handle food, after playing outside, after playing with pets, and after coughing or sneezing.  Washing our hands helps us from spreading germs, getting sick, and missing school or work.

How are adults doing at modeling this power?  According to the American Journal of Public Health, a 2009 study showed that only 31% of men and 65% of women washed their hands after using a public restroom.  (Am J Public Health. 2009;99(2):S405-11)   WE can do better!

Teach kids to cough or sneeze into their elbow.  Model this for them. Throw tissues away in the trash can.  Wash your hands after using a tissue. Play outside and get fresh air every day. Get plenty of sleep and eat several servings of fruits and veggies every day. Don’t share utensils, water bottles or cups.

Get the flu vaccine every Fall.  It works.

Viral illnesses can make people very sick. So empower your kids to FIGHT GERMS every day.

Healthy Learning Paths empowers kids every day, one classroom at a time to “Be Well, Learn Well”.

#StartItShareItLive It.

6,570 Days and a Crystal Ball

By Virginia Hrywnak, DO- Deputy Executive Director of Healthy Learning Paths, imperfect parent of 2 school-aged daughters, family physician and avid reader, hiker and weed-puller

Mother Holding Child's Hand “Parents can only give good advice or put them on the right paths, but the final forming of a person’s character lies in their own hands.”                              Anne Frank

As a mom, I spend a lot of time trying to help my own kids make wise, healthy choices. I try to empower my 2 daughters to make healthy choices even when I’m not with them. For the first 5 years of my career I was privileged to deliver babies as part of my full-spectrum family medicine practice. Each of those deliveries were unique, some were truly terrifying, all were amazing miracles. I’ve often thought back to those days when I’m trying to stay calm while convincing my 10 year-old to spend more than 5 minutes doing her homework, or when encouraging my 6 year old to eat her vegetables. Because time is fleeting. From the birth of our kids to age 18 is only 18 years or 936 weeks or 6,570 days. And we don’t get a crystal ball to catch even a brief glimpse of them as adults. We can just do our best, every day, in every way. There are many wise, witty statements about parenting; there are also hundreds of books, articles, blogs and websites devoted to helping people be better parents. But just like the first time you were handed your newborn, or joined with your adopted child, or foster child, or step-child you went from NOT being that child’s parent, to BEING THE PARENT. What a huge leap! We take lessons to learn to drive, swim with scuba gear or fly a plane. But no lessons or manual is required to be a parent. So we try our best to set them up for success in health, learning and life.

Success in health starts with healthy eating, enough sleep, play time and social support. Have your kids wash their hands, before eating, when getting home, after playing. Try eating a variety of fruits, veggies, proteins and complex carbohydrates every day. Have a consistent bedtime routine and stick with it. Talk with them about not smoking, drinking alcohol or trying drugs. Use the appropriate booster seats, helmets, safety gear. Teach them how to swim. Play outside every day.

Talk with your kids about HOW and WHY to be a good friend and model those behaviors in your interactions with others. Being a good listener, being empathetic, kind and caring are skills that should be taught, just like learning how to tie our shoes or ride a bike.

Learning starts with reading, writing and math right? But it also includes developing a love of learning. Make learning fun, check out your local library, have a designated place to study and start the school year off with a consistent routine. Have concerns? Touch base with your child’s teacher early and often. Stay involved.

Now let’s imagine if as parents, we did get to have that fleeting glimpse of our now 18 year old child in that mythical crystal ball! What picture would you want to see? Let’s make “Healthy the New Happy for Kids” where being well and learning well is part of every kids future.

Kids First: Start It, Share It, Live It

By Shayna Whitehouse, PhD, School Psychologist,
Healthy Learning Paths Instructor, shayna@reachinghighereducation.com

 iStock_000010947648Medium
“Those tasks I have can
wait; look at him, listen to him when he is ready to talk.”

Professionally, I talk to parents about the importance of communicating and actively listening with their children.  However, there are moments I have to remind myself to do the very same thing with my children.  Sometimes I move quickly during the day, making sure to complete my work responsibilities while getting all the chores competed.  While these tasks are important, the first day of school served as a reminder for me about the importance of communication.

After the first day of school, I was thinking about 7 or 8 tasks I still had to complete before the day was done.  However, my children came off the bus full of emotion and thought.  They needed to talk with me.  One child likes to talk while eating his after-school snack.  My other child likes to wait until bedtime when we sit quietly in his room.  I reminded myself, “Those tasks I have can wait; look at him, listen to him when he is ready to talk.”  During snack, I heard about the new routine in 3rd grade, friends he played with at recess, and the PE schedule.  At bedtime, I heard about 6th grade and new teachers, new routines, and new opportunities.

Reminding myself to pause, look and actively listen allowed me to learn about the classrooms and my children’s experiences.  Listening helped continue to build the foundation for future communication about other topics, some more sensitive or related to personal decisions and safety.  I know I can do those 7 or 8 tasks after communicating with my children.  If they tell me they need to talk to me now, I pause, look and actively listen.  I want to be ready to provide support or answer hard questions when my children need it.

Communication helps maintain the emotional and physical foundation of the relationship between parents and children.  It fosters continuous bonding and attachment, feelings of safety and support, structures for safe decision-making, and frameworks for understanding world events.  I have to remind myself each day how important this communication is both physically and emotionally.  By actively listening and communicating, we promote strong and lasting relationships with our children.  I am glad I received the reminder to communicate on the first day of school.  I am glad to share my experience with you.

Tips for communicating and actively listening with your child:
• Put other tasks and activities aside
• Move to your child’s eye level and make eye contact
• Listen
• Keep your body relaxed and open, show you are ready to hear anything
• Nod and make statements showing you are listening
• Show empathy about situations if needed
• Communicate your child’s feelings back: “Sounds like you feel…”
• Share your feelings about the topics with your child
• If your child has questions, ask what her thoughts are first and then provide your insights or ideas and ask her to think about them and how they may work
• Model thinking time or problem solving when needed
• Keep words and body language nonjudgmental to help your child to open up about more difficult subjects
• Tell your child “thank you” for talking with you and you love having this time to connect, use words you find come naturally to you

In closing, Diane Loomans reflects:
“If I had my child to raise all over again, I’d build self-esteem first, and the house later.  I’d finger-paint more, and point the finger less.  I would do less correcting and more connecting.  I’d take my eyes off my watch, and watch with my eyes.  I’d take more hikes and fly more kites.  I’d stop playing serious, and seriously play.  I would run through more fields and gaze at more stars. I’d do more hugging and less tugging.”

Do Your Kids Feel Alone?

By Dr. Shayna Whitehouse, PhD, School Psychologist, Healthy Learning Paths Instructor,     Reaching Higher Educational Center, shayna@reachinghighereducation.com
Does your child feel alone?
Does your child feel alone?

 “I used to think the worst thing in life was to end up all alone. It’s not.  The worst thing in life is to end up with people that make you feel all alone.”                            -Robin Williams

World events often highlight social and emotional needs and questions for children and families.  At these times, many families look for services in their community to support social and emotional needs of their children.  These are mental health needs.  Mental health impacts physical health and learning.

With school starting, families can find support by connecting with their school principal, school counselor or school psychologist.  Often these individuals provide or connect families to support for social and emotional needs.  In addition, agencies such as the Colorado Department of Human Services (or similar in other states) have links to county and community programs to support children, families, and individuals.  When families encounter emergencies, they are able to reach support at all times of the day through calling phone hotlines.  These hotlines help prevent suicide, violence, and community and school threats.

Families work hard to meet all the needs of their children.  But there are times when all of us can use some help.  Reaching out to the community for support for social and emotional health promotes positive growth in school and in the community.  When families ask for help, children witness a powerful skill. Children use the skill of asking for help when solving problems in health, learning and life.  Mental health support builds the foundation for children’s success both now and in the future.

Mental Health Resources

Community Agencies:
Colorado Office of Behavioral Health:  303-866-7400
CO Department of Human Services can be found at http://www.colorado.gov/cs/Satellite/CDHS-BehavioralHealth/CBON/1251581449824

Your Child’s School:
Ask for School Principal, School Counselor or School Psychologist

Prevention of Youth Suicide:
Second Wind provides support for youth at risk of suicide.  While it is not a hotline, support can be found through this organization.  Denver Metro: 303-988-2645, Boulder County: 720-212-7527, http://www.thesecondwindfund.org/Counselors-Corner.html

Hotlines:
Safe-to-tell to report safety concern or concern about wellness: 1-877-542-7233, http://safe2tell.org/contact-us/

National Suicide Prevention Lifelineto receive support to prevent suicide:
English: 1-800-273-TALK (8255), Espanol: 1-888-628-9454

Beyond The Backpack: Start It, Share It, Live It

Start It, Share It, Live It!
Start It, Share It, Live It!

By Virginia Hrywnak DO,
Deputy Executive Director of Healthy Learning Paths, imperfect parent of 2 school-aged daughters, family physician, avid reader, hiker, and weed-puller

It’s August and the start of school is just around the corner.  As we prepare for sending our kids back to school, we often shop for school supplies, buy back-to-school clothes and shoes, get haircuts, and replace the summer routine with the new school schedule.  As you help your kids prepare for the upcoming school year consider adding these 12 items to your “To Do List.”

  1. Tell your kids you love them, every day, whether they’re 5 or 15.
  2. Teach them how and why to be kind.  It’s a skill like any other.  Kindness needs to be taught.
  3. Actively listen when kids talk.  Unplug from electronics and LISTEN.
  4. Eat breakfast every day, EVERYDAY.  Your brain is starving.  Dinner was a long time ago.
  5. Eat fresh fruits and veggies every day.  Are your kids picky eaters?  You’re not alone.  Keep trying.
  6. Drink water and non-fat milk instead of soda or juice.  If you don’t buy soda and juice, kids learn to drink water and milk.
  7. PLAY outside.  Use a ball, frisbee, chase the dog, make an obstacle course, or walk.  Just play.  Have you heard?  Play is exercise.
  8. Kids and adults are sleep-deprived.  Go to bed. Turn off the TV and computer.  Practice the same bedtime routine every night.  Might seem hard at first, but your brain, mood, and body will thank you.  Kids will thank you with happiness each morning!
  9. Have a concern about something your kid does or says?  Look into it, get help, talk to your kid, the teacher, or your doctor.  Don’t ignore it.  Most problems don’t get better on their own.
  10. Let your kids fail in small, safe ways.  Yes, FAIL. When you rescue them from everything, kids learn a) parents don’t believe kids can handle it, and b) success or achievement is more important than effort and enthusiasm.  The stakes only get higher as kids get older.  Offer gentle guidance, so kids can learn how to solve problems.
  11. Post this article on your refrigerator for a daily reminder.
  12. Read this advice from Maya Angelou with your kids.  Start it.  Share it.  Live it.

I’ve learned that no matter what happens, or how bad it seems today, life does go on, and it will be better tomorrow.  I’ve learned that you can tell a lot about a person by the way he/she handles these three things:  a rainy day, lost luggage, and tangled Christmas tree lights.  I’ve learned that regardless of your relationship with your parents, you’ll miss them when they’re gone from your life.  I’ve learned that making a “living” is not the same thing as making a “life.”  I’ve learned that life sometimes gives you a second chance.  I’ve learned that you shouldn’t go through life with a catcher’s mitt on both hands; you need to be able to throw some things back.  I’ve learned that whenever I decide something with an open heart, I usually make the right decision.  I’ve learned that even when I have pains, I don’t have to be one.  I’ve learned that every day you should reach out and touch someone.  People love a warm hug, or just a friendly pat on the back.  I’ve learned that I still have a lot to learn.  I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”—Maya Angelou

We Can Do Better for All Kids

by Virginia Hrywnak, DO (Family physician, mom, HLP staffer, blogger)

Teaching kids how to feed themselves and how to live in a community responsibly is the center of an education.” ― Alice Waters

Let’s look at the stats- The US spends the most money on health care of any developed nation in the world and yet we rank 37th in the health of our population (The World Health Report 2000, Health Systems: Improving Performance).  Why?  What can we do about it?  WHO can fix this problem?  Is it the politicians, doctors, health insurance companies, schools, food industry, and soda companies?  Is it the parents?  The kids themselves?

When parents bring their kids in for a well-child check or sports physical those 15-20 minutes are spent in a hurried, information-gathering, hectic session. How about a sick visit- is that the time to counsel parents about their overweight child or the aggressive behavior that is causing problems in school? Sure, in both cases, the health care provider should talk about the big picture- the kid’s current and future health issues.  What’s the take home message to the parent? Are parents open to the information?  Can parents accept the work needed for change?  When it comes to health, many parents describe an uphill battle.  All too often, I hear,  “He just doesn’t like veggies.  She doesn’t like sports.  He only watches a couple hours of TV a day.  She doesn’t drink much soda.”  So what do we do?

Today, the health of kids has become a political soap-box.  It has become a hotly debated, somehow increasingly polarizing and partisan issue. School lunches, “Let’s Move” campaign, limiting the size of sodas, guidelines on stricter food nutrition labeling, cutting out sugar, and the list continues to expand.  Is this approach going to make a long-lasting, sustainable difference in the health of our nation’s kids?  I’m going to be politically incorrect now.  It’s not a partisan issue.  It’s not up to the fast food or soda companies.  It’s up to ALL of us to own this responsibility.

Kids need healthy foods all day every day.  Kids should have at least an hour of outdoor play everyday.  Screen time should be limited.  Kids shouldn’t be sleep deprived.  Let’s teach our kids the Golden Rule of Health and Happiness: Everyone has the power to choose and share health and happiness.  Kids need to know how to be a good friend and care about others.  Kids depend on us to teach them why and how to eat, sleep, move, and other skills needed for success in health, learning and life.  Let’s teach this generation not only that they have one life, one body, but also how and why they CAN take good care of it.

Treasure your health and teach your kids to treasure theirs.  You have the POWER.  We ALL do.

Sleepy Kids

Sleep is a necessity, a vital part of a healthy life. It’s also often the least consistent part of a child’s daily routine. According to the National Sleep Foundation, most American school aged children (ages 5-12) are sleep deprived. School aged kids need 10-11 hours of sleep a night but often get much less. Sleep deprivation can affect their ability to learn, concentrate and focus. Sleep deprivation has also been linked to problems with problem solving skills, emotional health, social interactions, and mood. Their brains need the growth and development that takes place only during sleep. Children that are sleep deprived have an increased risk of obesity, diabetes, emotional problems, and problems learning. Many parents describe difficulties getting their kids to sleep. Increased use of video games, TV and computers before bed can cause difficulties falling asleep, nightmares, sleep disturbances, and poor sleep quality. The facts are clear, the numbers are startling and yet most of us have let our kids stay up past their bedtime.

How can parents start to reverse this trend?

First, have a consistent bedtime routine. Healthy Learning Paths teaches kids the “High Five for Sleep”. Second, active kids sleep better at night, so encourage at least one hour of active play a day. Next, kids, like adults, need a quiet transition to bedtime. Turn off the screens at least one hour before starting the consistent bedtime routine. Kids need 10-11 hours of sleep a night, EVERY NIGHT, even on weekends. Let’s make “Healthy the New Happy for Kids!” Happy Sleeping!

-By Virginia Hrywnak, DO

Test Time!

It’s that time of year again. Standardized test time- TCAP for younger kids, ACT/SAT for high school students. These tests are used to measure a student’s knowledge and skills.  However, the results often don’t reflect the true abilities of the student. This is likely due to several factors. Test anxiety, poor preparation, poor skills, negative attitude about school, previous negative test taking experience, and low self-confidence. Research has consistently shown that kids whose parents are involved in their formal education tend to do better in school. So how can parents help? A good place to start is with the basics. Kids know when the tests are scheduled, usually, well in advance. They’re actually often very aware and may be anxious as a result. Keep them in a routine but allow plenty of downtime. Fun, active, playtime! Don’t overschedule their activities. Ensure they get plenty of sleep. Provide them with nutritious protein and complex carbohydrate containing meals. Teach simple relaxation techniques and reinforce using them. Counting to 10, while breathing slowly, is a great place to start. Try to avoid chaos at home- “where’s my backpack, shoes?” etc. Get to school ON TIME. Talk to them about staying focused on the test, even if others are finishing early. Have realistic expectations but do remind kids that the test is important. Be available to your child, talk but more importantly, LISTEN.

All parents want their kids to be caring, successful adults. Parents are the most important teachers in their child’s life. How can we create lifelong learners and instill a love of learning? Give your children a broad foundation of knowledge on a variety of topics. Play, talk and listen, be together. As Emerald Elementary in Broomfield, CO says “Calm, cool and ready for school!” Happy testing!

Help for Holiday Stress

The holiday season is fast approaching, ideally a happy, fun time with our family and friends.  Holidays are a break from the school and work routine and often include special music, food and family traditions. However, the holidays can also be very stressful, even for children.  Heightened family dynamics- divorce, remarriage, military duty, family strife, loss of loved ones, financial stress, lack of adequate sleep, overindulging in treats, impact our kids at the holidays as well.

Often, our expectations of the holidays and the reality when we get together with loved ones are what creates the stress. As adults, we bring with us our memories of our early childhood experiences and expect gratitude, good behavior and happiness from our kids. Our kids are bombarded with media messages that often encourage the latest toys, technologies and unhealthy foods. As mammals, we innately have strong attachment needs and often think “this holiday season will be different”. Yet, despite our best attempts, we feel more stressed than happy, more overwhelmed than overjoyed, more frustration than gratitude. Luckily, our brains are very plastic and we are able with some tools and self-awareness to CHANGE our expectations, not always easy, but doable.

A good place to start is by each family member writing down their expectations (even little kids can have you serve as a scribe for them). Do this soon, before the full holiday season starts. What type of celebration, foods, dress attire, activities, even toys does everyone expect. Meet as a family and compare lists. Especially important in step-families with blended traditions, there may be different cultural or religious backgrounds. Not bad or good, just different. Schedule in downtime- unstructured but important. Introverts and extroverts will see downtime differently. Have teens agree to a calendar of events/expectations “must have” “really like” and “optional”. Empower your kids. Plan ahead that not everyone will have their expectations met.

The American Psychiatric Association offers some helpful tips.

We at Healthy Learning Paths wish you a healthy, happy holiday season.

 

Written by Virginia Hrywnak, D.O.