Teaching Self-Awareness and Empathy

Hiding in Our Own Shell

egg-1280733__340 (1)We all hide in our shell when we are a little scared. When things seem safe and comfortable, we poke our head out and look for reasons to come out to share ourselves with the world. Children do this too, and most often with each other. When feelings are hurt or needs are not met they pop right back inside their shells. It may take some time to rebuild trust, but even the most resilient children want to come out of their shells and enjoy what a friendship offers.


 Causing Others To Hide In Their Shell

egg-1280733__340Because children are egocentric and empathy is emerging, they often do not recognize how their own behaviors influence others. They can be blind to connecting how their negative actions, such as, tattle telling, whining, being bossy, lying, or not sharing may cause others to feel uncomfortable or disinterested in being their friend. Consequently, the discomfort they provoke may cause their peers to hide back in their shell, preventing a friendship from emerging.

Pro-Social Behaviors Crack Open Our Shells


When children have an understanding of how their behaviors both positively and negatively influence others’ reactions to them, their ability to maintain a friendship is more likely to sustain.

A fun way of teaching self-awareness and empathy in young children is using the analogy “hiding in your shell.” When a negative behavior is observed, such as name calling, let the child know that this behavior causes you to feel sad and hide away in your shell. Explain your goal is to come out and help them get their needs met, but you need positive choices to help crack open your shell. So, when you hear a child compliment a friend make a point to say, “you just made us happy and come more out of our shells.”

Crack My EggBehavior Chart

Using a behavior chart that notes one’s progress with pro-social behaviors helps improve both self-awareness and empathy.

Download the FREE, “Help Me Come Out of My Shell” chart to use in your individual sessions, social skills groups or classroom.

When positive behavior is noted, place a marker on top of the next emerging chick.  Once the chart is filled up, provide a reward for their behaviors that helped others “come out of their shell. ” In social skills groups, have children provide the marker to their peers when friendship behaviors are noted.


How To Stop Power Struggling With Inflexible Children


All or nothing, inflexible, and absolute thinking patterns and behaviors are common among children with ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorder. These children often get stuck believing their opinions are facts and then dominate conversations, convincing others they are right. Because of their rigidity, they may refuse to end discussions, refuse to engage in specific activities, or refuse to follow instructions. These interactions provoke emotionally driven disagreements. When not prepared ahead of time, it is easy to fall into the trap of arguing against their irrational thinking. Below is a useful guide to escaping the “Chinese finger trap” like interactions.s-l300

Let Go of Your Control

  1. Understand Anxiety Rules. Be aware that rigid thinking and defiance are symptoms of anxiety versus purposeful insensitivity and opposition. It is inevitable that children with anxiety will attempt to control you, others, and their environment. Although not socially appropriate, this behavior helps anxious children eliminate their feelings of helplessness, while also securing their sense of safety.
  2. Don’t React. When a child challenges you, especially if the child is being defiant, disruptive, or verbally aggressive, it can test even the most experienced parent or professional. Defending yourself against their negative behaviors only traps you in an endless power struggle. This is why it will help to remind yourself ahead of time that inflexible children are coming from a place of fear and not hate. Similar to what you would tell your children when you notice yourself getting upset, stop and take a deep breath. Imagine an invisible bubble around you and their words ricocheting off the bubble.
  3. Lean In with Validation. The sure-fire way to get out of a Chinese finger trap is to push your fingers together to release the trap’s hold. Similarly, when working with an inflexible child, the more you fight against their argument, the more resistance they will give you and the situation. Because their attempt to control their situation is coming from fear, the key for them to let down their defenses and “loosen the finger trap” is for you to lean in and provide reassurance, comfort, and empathy for their concerns.
  4. Pick Your Battles. When safety is not a concern, decide what interactions are worth addressing in the moment. Even if it means opinions differ or someone is not being included, sometimes letting go of the outcome of being right is more valuable than carrying on an endless heated debate.
  5. Teach Social Consequences. During a moment of calm and when time and privacy permit, share your genuine observations of the children’s behaviors and your concerns for how they may be perceived by others. Show a Chinese Finger Trap and explain how the children’s inflexible thinking and controlling behaviors trap others into feeling uncomfortable around them. Discuss the natural consequences and your concerns for their friendships. Teach them that when they are more flexible, the finger trap loosens and others feel more comfortable and driven to wanting to their friend.
  6. Address the Anxiety. Provide a predictable environment with visual schedules and proactive commentary of what will happen at each stage of the day. Teach and practice coping strategies to manage transitions, new experiences. and social anxiety. Always remember that anxiety is a driving force to rigidity and the key to escaping the power struggle trap.