Teaching Empathy to a Granddaughter

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Reader’s Question

I have a 7-year-old granddaughter whom I love with all my heart. I spend time with her playing and doing things that she enjoys. I attend all of the special events in her life — soccer games, dance recitals, and cheerleading competitions — and I’m a big part of her life.

Most of the time she is the ideal granddaughter, but there are times when she is very hurtful and disrespectful of me. As an example, I stopped by their house to drop off some things and she said to me in a mean voice, “What are you doing here?” I said I’m dropping off these labels for your Mom, and she replied, “So what.” I told her that wasn’t a very nice thing to say to me. Then she said, “Why do I have to come to your house on Friday night?” When I told her, “Your parents are going out, so you and your brother are coming over to my house for the night,” She said she’d rather stay with her other (maternal) grandmother, who happened to be at the house at the time. I told her that she would have to take it up with her parents. My daughter-in-law was there too, and she didn’t say a word to her about how she was talking to me.

It is very upsetting to me when she behaves in this manner. I’ve talked with my granddaughter about this in the past and she still continues this behavior. It breaks my heart every time she does this.

Psychologist’s Reply

I find it puzzling that she is “the ideal granddaughter” most of the time, but then is disrespectful and rude other times. While it is no surprise that 7-year-olds have their challenging moods, it sounds like the difference in her is stark. That leads me to wonder if there is a pattern to her moods. If so, this could suggest to you some easy ways to deal with her rude behavior, especially if she is tired, hungry or upset when it happens. Another pattern could be that it happens when she is around someone in particular when her behavior turns negative. For example, perhaps she is wonderful when you are alone with her, but rude and disrespectful when she is with her parents or other grandmother. Kids are great mimics, so I have to wonder who is modeling such horrible behavior for her.

Whatever her reasons for behaving in this way, I think it is time to talk with her parents about it. They need to know that her behavior is hurtful, disrespectful and unacceptable. Such conversations should be conducted with great care, though, since you are essentially questioning their parenting skills. Thus, I always recommend starting off with how much you love her and how wonderful she is, before moving in to talk about your concern about her unpleasant behavior. If your concern is framed in such a way that it is about her unhappiness, or your fear that she will act that way toward others who love her less, it may be easier for them to hear and accept that something needs to be done.

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However, not all parents can accept feedback on their parenting skills, or are willing to make the necessary changes. If that is the case with your son and daughter-in-law, then there are some things that you can do for your granddaughter. It sounds like she is in need of a healthy dose of empathy for others — the ability to understand how someone else feels. Research has found that empathy skills can be learned, and a 7-year-old is just on the cusp of being able to understand the concept. With that end in mind, a quick search led me to several websites that have good tips on how to teach empathy to children:

You may be able to find others but all these have games you can start playing with your granddaughter now. In addition to the games, I think letting people know the consequences of their words is a good idea. Thus, whenever your granddaughter says something rude, you could respond by telling her that hurts your feelings, and that you will not allow her to talk to you like that. Kids need to know that there are consequences for what they do and these could include you not participating in a game or speaking to her until she apologizes, or asking her how she would like it if you treated her the same way. Similarly, please make sure that you praise her when she is polite. The carrot almost always works better than the stick.

It sounds like you are a great grandmother. You love your granddaughter, spend time with her and care about her well-being. She is lucky to have you.

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