How Heavy is Your Backpack? An Exercise in Empathy For School Age Kids

empathy-backpack-kids

The end of the school year can be tough. As parents, we feel like we’re crawling to the finish line. We’re so close, but there’s still so much to be done before we close the books on another year. For kids, it can be a bit of a mixed bag of emotions.

They look forward to summer. More time for fun and less work to be done. Long summer days that fade to night. Swim-soaked hair and watermelon dripping down chins. They long for summer long before summer arrives, it seems, but they also feel sad or nervous about the end of the year. It’s hard to say goodbye to a teacher and a class full of friends.

The other day at school pickup I noticed a lot of tired faces. They’ve worked hard all year and they’re tired. They’re ready for a break. He cheated! You cheated! That’s not the rule! I don’t want to play! The little arguments feel big and important. Hard moments seem to crop up at every turn.

When the complaints roll in, it can be tempting to blame the other child. Believe me, I understand. I know the feeling – the child retells the story and you just want to jump into the past and fix the problem for them! You clench your fists because you just can’t imagine that kids argued so passionately about kickball… again.

You might even caution your child to just stay away from the kid who keeps calling him a cheater. Just stay away. Avoid the child – avoid the problem.

As hard as it can be, I try to focus on empathy when these stories come home. First, I listen to my child. I empathize and provide compassion. I let my child talk it out. Later, I revisit the situation and talk about empathy for others.

“The heavy backpack” is an empathy project I’ve been doing with kids for years. It helps them think about how others feel and learn the art of perspective taking. It’s simple but powerful.

How heavy is your backpack?

We all carry emotions with us. For kids, it can be useful to think about the image of carrying an invisible backpack stuffed with our feelings. Many kids tend to be “stuffers” by nature. It’s hard to talk about feelings, and many kids don’t have a well-developed feelings vocabulary. They stuff their feelings until they explode.

Kids can identify with the process of stuffing a backpack. When it’s light, you hardly notice it’s even there. When it gets too full, it’s hard to lift. When it’s so full that you can’t possibly fit one more thing in it, you can’t even push it from place to place.

When kids stuff their feelings, it’s like shoving them into a backpack. At first, it might feel only a little bit heavier than usual. Over time, the weight of the backpack drags them down.

They struggle to concentrate. They feel overwhelmed, anxious or even depressed. They might cry, yell or have a complete meltdown. The feelings, once stuffed safely inside the invisible backpack, suddenly become too big too carry and they spill out – everywhere.

The only way to cope with them is to work through them, but I find that many kids don’t have that opportunity. Often, they are told to “move on” or “get over it”. What they internalize is this: Your feelings don’t matter. This isn’t important.

Their feelings are important, though, and the only way to help them work through those big emotions is to empty that backpack, one feeling at a time.

Unpack the backpack.

What am I getting at? Why should we talk about invisible backpacks? Talking about those backpacks we all carry (but don’t always acknowledge) helps kids develop empathy for others. When they recognize what they carry in their own backpacks, they can begin to think what other people might carry in theirs. Instead of reacting quickly when something goes awry, they can think about how the other person might be feeling and make a positive choice.

Here’s how to do it:

  • Place an empty backpack on your child’s back and ask him how it feels. Ask him if he can jump up and down with it on.
  • Explain the invisible backpack. Talk about times when you stuff your own feelings and what that feels like.
  • Get some wooden blocks or other heavy objects and explain that these will represent the feelings we stuff.
  • Pick up a block, assign a feeling to it (ex: I felt super frustrated when I got stuck in traffic and was late to my meeting, I’m worried about a friend who isn’t feeling well, etc.) and place the block in the backpack. Do a few more and toss them in.
  • Ask your child to think of things that weigh him down – stuff that happens that he tries not to think about but still make him feel mad, worried or any other feeling (Ex: I didn’t know my spelling words, sometime said I cheated in soccer, I couldn’t sit with my friends at lunch). Have him add his blocks to the backpack.
  • Ask your child to try to think about feelings that might weigh his friends down. Talk about those things and add some blocks to the backpack.
  • Have your child try on the backpack full of blocks. Ask him how it feels now that it’s stuffed. Ask if he can jump up and down.
  • Explain that this is how people feel when they carry around big emotions. This is why we don’t always make the best choices and sometimes we overreact or say things we wish we didn’t.
  • Ask your child what he can do to be a helper if it seems like a friend might have a heavy backpack. How can he get help if his own backpack gets too heavy?

Talk about empathy.

A few weeks ago I asked 21 first grade students if they knew the meaning of empathy. Only two kids raised their hands. One of them was my son.

I hear a lot of talk about the importance of empathy of kindness, but I often find that kids don’t actually know what empathy means. If they don’t understand it, how can they practice it?

Talk about empathy with your kids. Discuss what it means and how they can be empathic friends. We can’t just expect kids to understand and practice empathy without first providing information and guidance. When we take the time to teach, they grow into empathic and compassionate citizens.

The next time your child comes home full of big feelings about the events of the day, get out the backpack and blocks and rely on empathy to help him work through his feelings.

For more great strategies to teach empathy and help kids work through their feelings, please check out THE HAPPY KID HANDBOOK.

Print Friendly
Signature
About Katie

Katie Hurley is a Child, Adolescent, and Family Psychotherapist and Parenting Expert in Los Angeles, CA. She works in private practice in the South Bay area of Los Angeles, writes for PBS Parents, Washington Post Parents, and the Huffington Post. She is the author of "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World" (Tarcher/Penguin, 2015) and the forthcoming "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" (Penguin Random House, 2018)