Unlike intelligence and physical attractiveness, which depend largely on genetics, empathy is a skill that children learn.
Although the best training for empathy begins in infancy, it’s never too late to start. Infants and toddlers learn the most by how their parents treat them when they are grumpy, frightened, or upset. By the time a child is in preschool, you can begin talking about how other people feel.
When working with children and young people whom display complex and/or challenging behaviour I have used paper dolls to encourage them to think about how their behaviour impacts upon others and visa versa.
The activity can be used in several situations and also with adults. It doesn't have to be about discussing negative behaviour. You could also use it as an opportunity for families to share pride in one another's achievements. Some families find it difficult to share emotions with one another. In this instance you might write a child's recent achievement on the first doll before passing it to other members of the family to complete their own, describing how they feel.
Another idea might be to use it as an opportunity for children to voice their feelings about a parents behaviour during child protection cases. The end result will provide the parent with a visual reminder of how their choices impact upon their children's welfare.
Motivational Interviewing (Miller & Rollnick, 1991) is a way of talking with people about change that was first developed for the field of addictions but has broadened and become a favoured approach for use with a wide variety of populations in many different settings. It complements the strengths based approach that is gaining in popularity and engages clients as agents of change.
Typically, in child protection parents motivation for change is presumed to be static. They either possess it or lack it and there is very little the Social Worker can do to change this. Under these conditions the Social Worker becomes a punitive enforcer of court orders and agency rules and regulations and does little to promote change. Under the threat of punitive measures parents are asked to change or else.
However, it is well documented that a confrontational counselling style limits effectiveness. Miller, Benefield and Tonnigan (1993) found that a directive-confrontational counselling style produced twice the resistance, and only half as many “positive” client behaviours as did a supportive, client-centred approach. The researchers concluded that the more staff confronted substance-involved clients, the more the clients drank at twelve-month follow up. Problems are compounded as a confrontational style not only pushes success away, but can actually make matters worse.
By using Motivational Interviewing interactions become more change focussed and relationships between families and Social Worker become more collaborative. The technique should be used simultaneously with other protective measures to ensure that children are safeguarded from the risk of significant harm. I trained to use motivational interviewing whilst working with an offending and addiction service in 2007. I have since found the technique to be hugely beneficial when applied to work with children and families.
If you would like to learn more, Motivational Interviewing in Social Work Practice is an excellent book providing an accessible introduction to MI with examples of how to integrate this evidence based method into direct practice. You can also find some useful MI tools on my website.
I'm a Qualified Children's Social Worker with a passion for safeguarding and family support in the UK.