Empathy Books: Big Emotions in Little Bodies

By Savannah Williams, Youth Advocate, The Advocacy Program of Umbrella

I have been an advocate for a little over 11 years, but I’m not only an advocate I’m a mommy too, as I may have mentioned in past blog posts. Since I became a mommy I feel like I have one foot in each world. Sometimes the two worlds will mesh together, but there a times when I want to keep them apart. There are things that I’m not ready to teach my son about yet. People told me that parenting was going to be hard, but I guess I never really believed them until now.

I feel like with the experience and tools that I have learned throughout the years to share with other parents have helped me be the mom that I am today. By no means am I perfect. Nope, not at all. There are days when I think, “Is this going to bite me in the butt when my son is a teenager?” I guess we will see.

I’ve learned the importance of teaching children the right names for their private parts to enhance sexual violence prevention. Ever since my son was born I made sure to teach him the correct terminology. When he was three he decided to tell the cashier that he had a penis and asked her if she had a vagina. The cashier looked at me in horror, and I was having this internal debate on whether I should tell him to hush or use this as a teaching moment. So, I looked at her and asked her, “Well, do you?” Hoping she would be kind enough to share the moment with me, and she did. She was pretty great about actually after she too got over the initial embarrassment.

Which brings me to another tool that I found very useful, making empathy books.

We know that children learn about their emotions, behavior, relationships and how to develop empathy from the adults in their lives. As adults in children’s lives we need to model on how to regulate our emotions and provide the language of what those feelings look and feel like. Children can experience BIG emotions that they don’t have words for yet. As adults, we can sometimes get frustrated with this, especially if we feel like the experience is not a “big deal.” We tend to push their emotions aside, which can be very unhelpful to the child and create a situation that can become more heated for everyone involved.

By creating empathy books, this allows children to experience and process their emotions while creating their own stories about their little lives. What’s great about this process is that it can help both the child and the adult that are dealing with this big emotions.

Empathy books can be created for any type of situation or experience:

  • Separations: dropping off at daycare or school, visitation with a care giver, etc.
  • Conflicts: siblings, friends, etc.
  • Big feelings: not allowed to eat something, do something, or get something, etc.
  • Preparing for events or a new experience: new school, new baby, doctor appointments, etc.

This is an amazing tool to use as an advocate, but also as a parent. There are times as a parent when I feel like my words cannot be any clearer or I’m stressed from the day and it feels like my son and I keep crashing against each other. Not only does making an empathy book help me ground myself when I’m feeling a little overwhelmed, it also helps my son when he feels like his words are not getting through to me.

The book doesn’t have to be fancy, it can very simple. When you are creating an empathy book for a child you want to:

  • Print
  • Give the book the child’s name
  • Write or draw a little about what’s happening on each page
  • Name the feelings that the child is experiencing
  • Use every day language or the child’s language
  • End the book with feeling words or a possible solution (if there is one)

This gives the child an opportunity to ground themselves and take interest in what the adult is doing and saying about them. Depending on the situation the child may even start participating by telling the adult what to write or draw. By telling the story it helps the child validate what they are experiencing by receiving empathy and support from the adult.