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Ask Dr. Sears: Tease-Free Techniques

Q. Our problem is our 4-year-old daughter is teasing other children. How can we get her to stop?

A. One of the most important character traits you want to teach your children is empathy, which means getting behind the eyes of another person, identifying with that person, and understanding why that person feels and acts the way he does. Here are some tips to help your child learn empathy.

First, model empathy to your child. Practice empathy identifiers, little phrases that show and tell your child that you understand and care about her feelings: "Ouch! That must hurt," as she falls and skins her knee or "You must feel very sad that your goldfish died." Your children will watch how you care for others, especially their siblings, and this shows them how people care for people.

One day our youngest child, Lauren, then 3 years old, was playing with her older brother, 6-year-old Stephen. Lauren hurt her fingeror at least thought she did. Her reaction went way beyond the seriousness of her actual injury. She held her finger up to me pleading, "Daddy, kiss owie!" I realized that this very healthy-looking finger was not the issue. "Show me where it hurts" I said as I looked into her eyes and then carefully examined her finger.

Stephen watched this scene very skeptically. He knew that Lauren was not badly hurt and that his sister was overreacting. Nevertheless, he watched me empathize with her and offer a compassionate response. He learned that we don't make fun of her or call her a "baby" because her feelings are real even if the injury is not. "Let's make it better" I encouraged, and Lauren and I went to the kitchen to get the "boo-boo bunny" (a cloth container filled with ice cubes) out of the freezer to put on her finger. Stephen came along and watched.

During teachable moments, let your child see how you get into the mind of another person to imagine how they feel and why they act a certain way. Suppose you're in a checkout line at the supermarket and the clerk who waits on you is rude and short-tempered. Even though you feel like being rude back, be as nice as you can to the clerk.

Afterwards, talk with your child about why the clerk may have acted this way: "She could be ill, maybe with a headache. Maybe her child is sick and she didn't get very much sleep last night" When we teach our children to think compassionately, we open a whole new world to them, a world full of real people who have needs, pain, and troubles.

Encourage empathy by making your child aware of what's going on around her. When you spot a wheelchair-bound person trying to go up a ramp, talk about how frustrating it must be to try to get up that ramp to reach the door. Keep your eyes out for teachable momentslessons from real-life situations that can make a lasting impression on your child.

When you witness your child teasing another child, sit down and ask her, "How would you feel if your friend teased you? Imagine if you had fallen and hurt your knee and you really wanted somebody to help you, yet your friend teased you. Imagine how you would feel." Encourage your child to be able to get behind the eyes of another person, to see how they feel after being teased.

To help your child become more comfortable looking at feelings from another person's point of view, try these empathy games:

Switch places. When you witness your child teasing another child, such as saying: "You're dumb!" immediately, as parent empathy director, intervene by going over and telling your child "Now I'm going to pretend to be you: "You're dumb!" This will make a lasting impression on your child. First of all, your child will see how ridiculous this sounds coming from you, a scene she is likely to remember, and it encourages her to feel how the other person feels.

Play "Imagine that¿¿S" Your child just created a homemade birthday card for her grandmother. As she shows it to you, help her look ahead: "Imagine that you are grandma and she is reading your nice card. Imagine how great grandma will feel after reading your card."

Children between 4 and 7 constantly have their antennae up, asking themselves, "What's the norm?" and "How am I supposed to act?" If they constantly witness kindness and empathy, they learn that being compassionate to other people is the normal way of life and what's expected in your family.