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Can we talk about empathy?

(56 Posts)
lougle Sun 16-Feb-14 22:26:27

I am trying to order my thoughts and I'm confused by this.

Sometimes, DD2 will show a little empathy. For example, if I say something self-deprecating such as 'Sorry about that, I'm a terrible mother...', she will say 'No you're not! You're the best Mum in the whole world...'

But generally, she just doesn't seem to get it at all. Today, DD1 fell a full flight of stairs, top to bottom, hitting a small suitcase on the way down, then crashing into a wall (at BIL/SIL's house).

DD1's cousin made her a playdough smiley face to cheer her up. DD3 approached us and cuddled DD1 tenderly. DD2 carried on regardless. When I finally said 'DD2, DD1 has really hurt herself', she just shrugged her shoulders and said 'I know.' then carried on doing what she was doing.

It seems so cold. I tell myself that she must not realise, but I don't think I really understand why. I don't understand why she doesn't show empathy towards people unless there is a very obvious 'this is what you should do in this situation.'

Ineedmorepatience Sun 16-Feb-14 22:46:25

Get it in your diary lougle!!

I hope your poor Dd1 is ok sad

Dd3 needs a visual clue that someone needs empathy, she has lots of friends who have different SN's to her and some are wheelchair users, she is absolutely brilliant at helping them without over doing it and knowing when to help and when not to. It took me a while to realise that she gets a massive visual reminder that these friends need her support and she steps up but without that visual reminder she is fairly hopeless with empathy.

I dont know how to teach empathy, but knowing our fast learning girls they would be able to learn if we taught them the right thing.

Redoubtable Sun 16-Feb-14 22:51:14


my DS would be somewhat similar; odd reactions to someone else's distress.

I have found How to talk so Kids will Listen really helpful.
Also Talkability for doing this type of training in a structured way through play.

It seems to me with DS, that I need to hit it from several angles and no one way is 'best'.
So I coach him on 'formal' social skills i.e. how to react, what to say.
I do emotional coaching...'remember when you fell and cut your knee, and you were very upset about it bleeding- what did DD1 do? How did that make you feel?'

I've also realised that DS is actually highly sensitive; and to me, it seems that when he sees someone else being distressed, he has to turn it off as its overwhelming for him. So I am teaching him about how to be sensitive but how to protect himself and how to 'keep some of the feeling out'.

Hope that helps?

lougle Sun 16-Feb-14 22:58:20

Ineed, it went into the document I gave paed, etc. They don't pay any attention sad

Redoubtable, I wonder if that is part of it for her. Yesterday she was talking about a cake I was decorating. It reminded her of the fact that I'd decorated her cake last year, as a butterfly.

She suddenly said 'oh. This is going to be rude....' and bit her lip. Then I said 'it's ok, tell me.' and she said 'but it will be rude. I know it will.' I repeated 'tell me; it's ok.' and then she burst into tears and said 'well you made me a butterfly but I do really like giraffes and monkeys and I know they're far too hard to do but that's what I like....'

I said to her 'It's ok, DD2. I can do a giraffe or monkey next time, but last birthday I didn't know you liked giraffes and monkeys, because you've only just told me now.' confused

The reaction was so hysterical, but obviously genuine and not attention seeking. It's like she doesn't have a grasp on 'how bad' something is.

Similarly, but in contrast, my SIL was saying that her DD who is 10 weeks older than DD2 had a complete meltdown yesterday because she was overtired and 'so excited about DH's party.' It occurred to me that DD2 has never had a meltdown because she's 'excited.' Her getting excited extends to her saying 'oooh I'm looking forward to this...'

Redoubtable Sun 16-Feb-14 23:09:49

Yes lougle.

I have a pet theory that DC who are on the spectrum and who have Sensory Processing difficulties (under or over-responsive) have the same pattern with emotion.

I loathe the stereotype that people with ASD have no empathy. Going on my Ds, he has too much empathy at times, and too little at others- and he's learning to look for guidance when he cant judge which way to go himself.

lougle Sun 16-Feb-14 23:20:36

I'll never forget the day that DD2 really hurt my feelings by calling me lazy when I was ill. I went for a lie down on the sofa and she walked up to me, then just stared at me for the longest moment. I said 'What do you want, DD2?' and she said 'I don't know whether I should hug you.' I said 'What do you want to do?' and she replied 'I don't know. I don't know whether I should hug you or just go away and leave you alone.' She looked so lost.

I often think she looks like an intrepid explorer, curiously examining this new world she's landed on, searching for examples of human behaviour that she can catalogue and analyse.

bialystockandbloom Sun 16-Feb-14 23:35:07

It's a really hard one isn't it. I think you're definitely right that the 'how to respond' bit often needs to be taught explicitly, but that doesn't mean that they're somehow unfeeling, or don't care if someone close to them is upset/hurt.

My ds was once (sadly) witness to a relatively minor argument between dp and me, and suddenly stepped in to really defend me and he was of course right so he totally picked up on the vibe, and I was amazingly touched by it.

But then this week I was really ill with food poisoning, and couldn't really move from the sofa for a day. At one point he asked, pretty dispassionately, "mummy are you dying?" confused grin

Think redoubtable hits the nail on the head with the sensory issue too - my ds has never reacted normally to pain, either completely ott or does everything to stop himself reacting.

PolterGoose Mon 17-Feb-14 06:40:16

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

lougle Mon 17-Feb-14 08:03:38

I see what you mean; it just comes across as cold and unfeeling. DH is the same. It's like a pragmatic analysis. 'I know she's hurt - she's fallen down a flight of stairs - but there's nothing I can do about it.' The nearest she got to concern was a curious 'I think she might have broken her spine....'

PolterGoose Mon 17-Feb-14 15:45:21

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

adrianna1 Mon 17-Feb-14 16:11:07

I think, even NT react different to emotions i.e. I was really upset on the tube..and most people did not care...or did care but did not bother to ask if I was ok.

lougle Mon 17-Feb-14 16:14:10

Poltergoose that might be a possibility - we have a SJA hall just across the field from us.

adrianna1 I think that's quite different to a member of your own family, though? A stranger being upset may make you feel empathy/sympathy, but you don't know how they'd react to an approach, etc. Your sister being very hurt should elicit at least an 'are you ok?' or a 'poor you.' To carry on without even showing signs that you've noticed is what I'm seeing as dysfunctional.

zzzzz Mon 17-Feb-14 16:30:08

lougle I find some of your posts SO baffling because for me and mine your dd's reaction IS typical of nt development. I am aware that this is probably because my concepts of what constitutes unusual behaviour are warped by my experience.

FWIW I have never experienced a child having a meltdown because they are excited about a future event. That doesn't make sense to me.

Ds1 would be really really upset if someone hurt themselves especially a sibling. The others? Two would try to help, the other two might.

rabbitstew Mon 17-Feb-14 16:32:16

I don't think it is lacking in empathy to find it harder to react openly to a close family member being hurt than to a stranger. The stronger your own emotions (ie the more you understand how the other person must feel), the more frightening they are to process and express, so it's easier to shut down and hope the cause of the problem will go away. That's not a lack of empathy or interest, that's having too much to deal with. It's far easier to make a socially appropriate expression of concern to a stranger you don't actually care about, it doesn't mean you have real empathy if you do it, it just means you know it might be expected and aren't so upset that you are incapable of doing it.

lougle Mon 17-Feb-14 16:47:37

Well....I don't know, zzzzz. I only have 3 children. 1 has neurolgical 'differences' structurally in her brain - great empathy for others (she's 8). Her real strong suit. 1 is NT and has great empathy for others (she's 4). 1 is DD2 who only shows empathy if she's been told to say something nice, or it's been pointed out to her how hurt someone is, or she sees peers making overtly empathetic gestures and copies them.

I may not explain myself very well. I wasn't expecting her to sit and tend to her sister's pain. I wasn't expecting her to cry with empathy. I just expected her to at least recognise that her sister was hurt. It's difficult to explain, I guess, but it's like DD2 is in the same place at the same time, but in a different 'place'. She doesn't notice that sort of thing at all. She just floats past it as if it didn't happen.

rabbitstew Mon 17-Feb-14 16:56:19

But if she commented that her sister might have broken her spine, then she did recognise her sister was hurt. And she saw her siblings make overtly empathetic gestures but did not copy them. It still sounds to me as though she finds it harder to react to things the more serious they are and it doesn't sound abnormal to me to find it harder to react to "real" things than "play" empathy, where it's just words, not feelings. There is a big difference between external behaviour and internal feelings.

lougle Mon 17-Feb-14 17:01:08

She did comment that her sister might have broken her spine, after I said to her 'DD2, DD1 has really hurt herself.' and she'd replied 'I know' and shrugged her shoulders. It was only after some time that she pondered aloud that she may have broken her spine. The tone was very 'matter of fact' and 'philosophical' rather than showing any hint of concern or worry.

It's so hard, isn't it. So much of what I'm trying to get at isn't in what she did or said it's in what she didn't do and didn't say and her tone/posture.

rabbitstew Mon 17-Feb-14 17:06:27

My ds1 used to react like that, but as he got older he found it harder to hide the real feelings underneath the shrugs. The more upset he used to be, the more blank the face.

KeepOnKeepingOn1 Mon 17-Feb-14 17:15:54

When grandma was in hospital following a stroke I (stupidly) asked DS2 if he wanted to send his best wishes. He laughed (at my ignorance) and said 'no - I don't have any to send'.

What is this - lack of empathy - my mum had just had a stroke? Or literal thinking? Or both?

PolterGoose Mon 17-Feb-14 17:18:37

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

PolterGoose Mon 17-Feb-14 17:19:46

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

lougle Mon 17-Feb-14 17:26:25

Tbh, I'm not trying to change that right now - bigger fish to fry. But I want to understand it. I want to, in a nutshell, be at peace with the fact that I notice all these differences between DD2 and the other children I come into contact with. I want to know if I'm imagining this stuff or if it is real, because it's clear as day to myself, DH, my Mum and Dad, DD1's care worker, our homestart lady, etc. But then when we try to get her help we get the head tilt and the 'I'm here to listen.' Well I don't need you to listen. I need you to take what you hear and use it to help her.

Right now she's cute. She's 6. Children get less cute as they get older. It becomes more obvious when they don't fit. I want to help her.

PolterGoose Mon 17-Feb-14 17:56:50

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

zzzzz Mon 17-Feb-14 18:56:28

Some of mine wouldn't react much at all.

Polt has hit the nail on the head. Mine are very like me, and Dh and the larger family. For us that is normal. It's fine because it works in our family and we have not been disabled by it. So your dd might stick out like a sore thumb in your family but still be in the realms of nt. I should add ds1 is nothing like anyone in our gene pool and is a different style all together (and mysteriously sounds far more like your dd1) and that I score a pitiful 12 on the "are you/aren't you" scale.

rabbitstew Mon 17-Feb-14 19:22:13

PolterGoose - ds1 was diagnosed with aspergers when he was 6. And undiagnosed when he was 8... He used to act a lot like the way lougle describes her dd2. He processes visual information in a slightly odd way, but he doesn't lack social understanding, particularly not if it is verbally expressed. At 6, the tests were all in pictures. At 8, they were mainly in verbal stories... There is a very large discrepancy between his verbal and non-verbal IQ (his verbal IQ is exceptionally high). This even shows up in theory of mind and facial expression tests, where he scores averagely for visual info., but well above the average range for verbal tasks. He had big difficulties, socially and emotionally (and physically, which added to his anxiety, which I think caused most of the symptoms) at age 6, and is now a confident, happy boy at nearly 10. There is something not quite NT about him (low muscle tone, the discrepancies in IQ, having to learn physical actions by rote rather than through instinct, mild tics, etc), but autistic spectrum is not a good description of his difficulties at all. He now likes variety and change, has a phenomenal imagination, no longer enjoys repetitive activities, has a fantastic sense of humour (he enjoys company and people and peoples' foibles), is popular in school etc (despite complete inability when it comes to computer games or any type of sport). He processes information in a different way, but in some ways this leads him to quite a sophisticated understanding of others' behaviours - just always done with a slightly unusual analysis, I guess because he is picking up his cues in a slightly different way from the "norm." He has, basically, learnt ways around his difficulties, by over-developing his strengths!

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