Teach Empathy, Build Healthy Futures: A Conversation with Christine Sullivan, Counselor and Creator of Blog Teach Kids Empathy

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How to Teach Kids Empathy with Christine Sullivan

It’s no question that we want our kids to succeed. To be well-adjusted and happy adults with rich lives. But how do we define what that looks like? Unfortunately, too many times we end up focusing on achievements – academic, monetary, physical – and the importance of emotional intelligence gets pushed to the side. But emotional intelligence, and empathy, cannot be just something we hope children pick up along the way to adulthood. It’s clear when we look around at today’s teenagers that many are suffering. Studies show that teens today are more likely to feel alone, at greater risk of suicide…I could go on. And as you probably know or have guessed, social media is playing a primary role in this shift.

But this post is not designed to cause despair. Just the opposite! There are many people who are working – with such love, creativity, and determination – to change children’s lives, starting with their own. We are so incredibly proud to present Christine Sullivan, counselor, blogger, and creator of Teach Kids Empathy LLC.

Christine is not just amazing because of her mission, which is to teach kids empathy and raise awareness among parents and families. Read on to find inspiration and some practical ways you can spread empathy, starting today!

AR: So excited to have you here today to talk about your blog and work. Can you start by telling us about your background and what led you to create Teach Kids Empathy blog and LLC?

CS: After my job loss, I was thinking of possible things I could do, and I took an online transcriptionist course, and I didn’t qualify for that, and I was feeling like, with my background, that my skills are “soft skills”, do you know what I mean? Whereas some people have really concrete skills like a carpenter..I felt [in] a sense diminished. But one day I was driving home from work and it just dawned on me that I know how to teach kids to be kind, better than most people, you know what I mean?

AR: A carpenter can’t do that!

CS: Right! And being at this crossroads in my career, and that I’d be having more time with my kids, what could I do that would be of value. And I’d seen so many kids, like in third grade, sit down and have lunch groups and they couldn’t even have general conversations with each other. Or we’d have a conflict resolution, and they really struggle with understanding other people’s perspective! And they’re eight, nine years old. You know, skills that I feel should be pretty solidified by that age.

AR: Absolutely.

CS: And that’s something I have seen a connection with over the years with technology – the more kids are exposed to technology, that leading to diminished ability to connect. From what I’ve read, is that the more time you spend using technology, the less face to face conversation you have. And essentially, how can you have developed skills in empathy if you’re not spending enough time developing them? So I didn’t start the website thinking that I would be blogging, because I have never viewed myself as a writer. Actually, when I applied to graduate school I was in the seventeenth percent for writing! (Laughs.) So I’ve never viewed writing as my thing.

AR: I love that.

CS: I just kind of thought I would begin by doing things with my kids, and investing time in them to teach them how to be kind and empathetic, and then providing resources and ideas for parents and educators.

AR: What’s so important about teaching kids empathy? Why this particular concept and focus?

CS: In the book, Un-Selfie (find it here), Dr. Michele Borba basically says that kids who have strong empathy skills are more successful in life, and I want that for my kids and I think everybody wants that but we don’t see that connection. And I think that, a lot of times, people look for opportunities for their kids to be involved in sports and academics, enrichment programs…and I’ve heard it said we’re raising smarter, sadder kids. We’re just overwhelming them with these opportunities to enrich themselves when they need that downtime. And I think in those unstructured play times is when they learn those social skills and develop those skills.

AR: You’ve said that taking away all media access isn’t necessarily the answer. A friend of mine shared an article explaining that smart phones are a major cause for depression and mental health problems among teenagers. And my friend’s comment was that she planned on telling her daughter she wouldn’t be able to have a smartphone until she could pay for it. That seems like a strategy that could work, though it may be challenging, if your friends have a smartphone but you don’t? Curious to hear your thoughts.

CS: Because my kids are young, I’m taking it one step at a time. It’s the interactive aspect that they say affects their ability to understand feelings and also affects their nervous system. Like, until the age of four they shouldn’t be exposed to really much technology, especially the interactive games, because it changes the set point of their nervous system so what feels like relaxed is a heightened level of arousal. So when their brain is forming, if they’re exposed to this much, you know, technology, it’s changing their nervous system. So you have a lot of kids that look like they have ADHD when they don’t necessarily have it but they just have a lot more anxiety…

AR: I know I have been guilty of this! I would let C watch my phone when we would be out to eat, or shopping at the mall. I regret it now, and of course I don’t do it anymore. And not only that but there is radiation coming off the phone, which isn’t good for them! But you do better, based on what you know.

CS: I think a lot of people feel that temptation, you’re in the doctor’s office or you’re in the supermarket, just to get out and get through, and your child’s exhausted, but I feel like in general as a society our tolerance for child silliness and nonsense is decreasing. And so when I was a kid I stole Chicklets from the check out, because there were five of us and my Mom, she couldn’t keep track…and we went back and we said we were sorry. So that was a life lesson that I learned when I was five. And with the rising anxiety levels, it’s because if we don’t let them make mistakes and resolve those mistakes and solve their own problems, then when they reach adulthood and have to deal with real, life-adult problems and they haven’t had those little milestones in their childhood then they shut down!

AR: They haven’t developed the coping skills by that point.

CS: Yeah. It’s not easy to do, and there are certainly times where I’m like ready to pull something out, but I think in the long run it benefits them.

AR: Let’s talk some about the blogging. What challenges have you discovered, what joys…

CS: In a sense, I feel like I have a voice. In a time where I’m kind of in transition with my career, sometimes you feel like you don’t have a whole lot of power. So it’s given me an opportunity to share my passion. Some people have given me feedback that it’s working. And there’s also this vision I have, to help one person at a time. [Some years back] I was driving into work, my older son was one and a half, and it broke my heart, I wished I could be home full-time with him. And I was driving to my first day at this job, and God spoke to me and asked, “would you go if there was just one child you were meant to help”. And it broke my heart, because of course, I would. But I just have that perspective that sometimes we’re led to do things just for one person.

AR: So beautiful. And that ties into empathy, because you need empathy to be able to help anyone through a difficult situation. Kids lacking in empathy probably also don’t see themselves as being capable of helping others, or maybe even as important or valuable.

CS: I started writing last night a blog about letting go of ordinary. When I was a child growing up I got this concept that there are extraordinary people, those beautiful,wealthy really super intelligent people that are successful at whatever they do in life and then everybody else is just kind of ordinary and I’m, like, in that boat. I was someone who had to work really hard, I was that B+ / A- student. I wasn’t a straight A student, and when I graduated I was in the top eleven percent and somehow I perceived ten percent was exceptional, not viewing that “wow, I did better than eight-nine percent of my peers”! I think so many of us let that hold us back. So when I was brainstorming last night for this upcoming blog, I was thinking about what really makes people extraordinary. In my mind, I had this artificial line [that I had drawn]. But I started to think about how maybe being able to forgive, makes you extraordinary! You know, when somebody deeply hurts you.

AR: Plenty of people have a hard time doing that! (Laughs.) Such a great truth, and kids need to hear that! Can you tell us about projects you’re working on, where you see the blog headed?

CS: Most recently, I did a presentation on social networking with a youth group at the church I attend, and I was surprised how impacted the kids were, so I just feel that’s something I need to pursue right now. I’d like to do more of that. My vision is to teach them that you can use technology for good. It doesn’t just have to be for selfish reasons. There’s been a rise in narcissism amongst our youth and certainly, technology and selfies and all of that is contributing. So my spin is how can we still use this vehicle but use it for good and to promote kindness and selflessness rather than selfishness.

AR: Can you talk a little bit more about what suggestions you gave during this presentation for using technology to promote selflessness?

CS: Well it’s funny – I have this idea – you know how everyone is taking selfies and using SnapChat and all these other things. They put filters and make themselves look like the most beautiful version of themselves. But what if instead, they had a friend take a picture of the back of their head, of what they’re actually doing, and maybe that would be donating food to a food pantry, or that would be caring for young children or elderly, in service, rather than their face, rather than them getting the attention.

AR: I know I’m always inspired when I see posts of people helping others in some way.

CS: So that’s going to be my focus for now, and I’m going to make a promotional video to go with it before I reach out to more schools and churches…

AR: Talk about your own children – do they often inspire ideas or blog posts? Do you try the techniques you read or write about with them?

CS: There’s been a little bit of both. One of the things that I have blogged about a couple of times was this concept of necessary people that I got from the book Listen, Love, Repeat: Other-Centered Living in a Self-Centered World. It was a really practical book about how to be kind, how to influence your community. So I love this concept, of writing down twenty-five necessary people in your life, like the postman, your housekeeper, whoever serves you, and seizing opportunities to recognize them for what they do. And what I love about it is that we often think kids can’t do community service. But I really believe they can. And through my posts on necessary people we gave donuts to electricians who worked when we had a power outage. My son picked out gifts for our chiropractor who are like family to us. And you don’t think your words or your actions really make a difference but it’s been two months and the chiropractor’s office still has my blog post about appreciating them on their desk in their office for the other customers to read. So I love it.

AR: I think many people, unfortunately, do these acts of kindness only around the holidays. And I mean that’s good and all, but really it is something we need to practice all year long, not just for a few weeks one month.

CS: Last year, in February, there’s a week during Valentine’s Day called Random Acts of Kindness week. And I did this activity with kids in school called Kindness Bingo. There were all these different ideas for random acts of kindness that the kids could do. So I decided to break them up and give them a secret mission and then when they saw me in the hallway they would tell me what they did. [It was] so cool, they were so excited to share what they did. And I love that with the twenty five significant people [project] we are sharing openly, but the random acts of kindness can be even more meaningful because it takes you out of the picture. There’s even this group on Instagram called the Kindness Trolley and if you send them an email they send you in the mail these kindness trolley certificates and they give you a list of ideas for random acts of kindness and you leave this small certificate with each act. I love their mission to do it anonymously.

AR: My husband is right on board with that, giving anonymously. So great.

You talked about speaking with groups – are there any other special projects or future goals you have?

CS: One of the other things that I always wanted to do but wasn’t able to in a typical school setting – a lot of times you’re trapped by all the school objectives and whatever the district’s goals are, you don’t have that flexibility to pursue the things you’re really passionate about. So I’ve been wanting to get certified as a Disaster Response Crisis Counselor. Two courses I’m taking in December are for that. You need maybe five courses before you’re certified, and then you pick the type of natural disasters that you feel comfortable helping with. When you hear about flooding or other natural disasters, you often feel your hands are tied, you can’t help, but I’m excited for the potential, if something happens in our area, I’ll be able to do something meaningful. And in a school setting, if there’s any kind of active threat, I’ll be able to help. There’s also the potential for my husband and I to do something together. He’s pretty passionate about the violent video games and how they’re affecting young men.

AR: I can see the two of you, traveling, conducting seminars and workshop, visiting schools…that’s wonderful.

So for all those people who want to learn or know more, what is it you’re hoping they can take away from the blog and your work?

CS: I’m hoping that it gives people some ideas, and some practical ideas because I think sometimes when we talk about ideas like kindness and empathy, they’re kind of abstract. And so I’m hoping people can get some practical ideas of what to do with their kids, with their students, to promote kindness and empathy more.

AR: Thank you SO much for taking the time to do this interview! Excited to see where this venture takes you. It’s such important work, and we wish you all the very best.

Find ideas, inspiration and more: Visit Christine Sullivan on her blog, Teach Kids Empathy, or find her on Facebook @teachkidsempathy and IG @teachkidsempathy.

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