Is It a Stage or Does He Just Lack Empathy?

Updated on July 09, 2019
K.W. asks from Altadena, CA
8 answers


I have 11yr old son who I’ve had 2 incidents where he has according to him were “accidents” and has made a child hurt themselves ( trip and fall , kicked a ball and him fall) I honestly don’t know if I’m just overthinking it or whatever. Like for the tripping situation he seemed to show no empathy and the second situation with him kicking the ball where kid was sitting and making the him fall was brought to me 2 weeks later by that child’s mother and the same day his mom she saw my son refuse to let her kid borrow a book.

I did get on to him about the tripping the child over and if was accident to be more careful. But haven’t told him anything about the second situation.. i honestly feel like it needed to acknowledged right there and then. Also, I’m not trying to make excuses but I really do think that they were playing and it just got ruff and when he got hurt the situation flipped and it wasn’t fun and anymore and he told his mom. I say that because I clearly remember them playing all night and never noticed anyone complaining. I regards to the book, I have no clue on how to feel about that.

I’ve never had any behavior issues at school, he’s a great kid, polite and listens to me ( has a attitude but I think mostly of the age) should be worried about 2 incidents?

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answers from Miami on

Be watchful. You have had complaints now, so consider that there may be a point that you need to listen to in regards to how your son treats other children.

You should sit down with him and talk to him seriously about what it means to treat others with kindness. Tell him that others are watching him, including neighbors and parents. Ask him how he would feel if other parents looked at him like a bully. Is that the reputation he wants? Does he want other kids to wish he was not anywhere around him?

Watch his attitude while you talk to him. Is he dismissive? Does he just make excuses? Does he care? You may know how much work you have to do with him after this conversation...

6 moms found this helpful


answers from Boston on

I think you're wise to look into it, and not just write it off as "a stage" or kids being "rough" like that's okay.

But the problem here is, you didn't see it happen, and you didn't even know about one for 2 weeks. So, it could be the other mom overreacting or being overly protective, or it could be her kid got yelled at and tried to blame it on your son, or it could be she's reasonable and just held on to it for a few weeks until she felt it was part of a problem.

So, I'd ask him about it - carefully - by saying, "Hey, did something happen with Jimmy and a ball? Can you fill me in?" Don't get into the whole report and make him defensive - just be as neutral as you can. If he gets all huffy, then maybe he's covering up. If he says, "Yeah, I kicked a ball and knocked Jimmy over and it was hilarious," then you have a problem. If he says it was an accident and he apologized, and if he didn't share a book because he was reading it or because the other kid had just destroyed 2 other books, then you know it's not a big deal.

Remind him that the definition of "fun" is when everyone is having fun. The definition of a joke is when everyone is laughing. If one person is hurt or made fun of, then it's not innocent anymore.

So, you have to supervise interactions with these 2 kids, and you have to observe actions with him and other kids until you get to the bottom of it. But being hurtful or cruel is not an acceptable phase.

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answers from Toledo on

Ask him about it. He’s 11, not 6, so his memory is better. Events don’t need to be dealt with immediately, as was important in kindergarten and the early grades. Ask him without accusation and see what he says.

If it sounds like it really was an accident or misunderstanding, remind him that to apologize. He needs to know that apologizing is very important because it shows compassion and no ill will. It doesn’t mean that was happened was intentional or mean-spirited. It simply acknowledges that someone was hurt and that your son cares about people.

I wouldn’t worry or be concerned. We all have moments where something we do hurts another person. It’s not uncommon for us to be so focused on what we are doing that we don’t even notice what we’ve done. It’s good to raise his awareness.

Just ask him about it (but don’t accuse) and go from there.

5 moms found this helpful


answers from Boston on

You got a lot of good advice already about the tripping so I'll address the book borrowing. Your son has every right not to lend a book or any other possessions to another child. Totally his decision on that stuff. Let the other mom know that his possessions are his to decide and if her child wants a book and the answer is no then they need to go to the library and borrow a copy.

5 moms found this helpful


answers from Washington DC on

i don't think that empathy is something that ebbs and flows like stages do.

there's not enough information here to gauge whether or not your son is actually without empathy and being callously hurtful or if they were just accidents. if these are the only incidents that indicate lack of empathy, and this is the only mother who has complained of it, then it's probably not an issue. but if this is a pattern, pay attention.

by this time you should have a pretty good handle on your kid's overall personality and quirks. obviously mothers have biases, but you should have observed by now whether or not your son has a tendency to hurt others deliberately or consistently fail to show remorse or sympathy.

no behavior issues, good manners and paying attention indicate that two incidents are just two incidents. but your little addition of an 'attitude' suggests that there's more to the story.


4 moms found this helpful


answers from Chicago on

I'd ask him about the situation, not in an accusing way, just in a curious way. This mother brought it to your attention and you are interested in his thoughts. It could be she misunderstood the situation, there are many possibilities.

In any case, make sure you are showing him empathy regardless of what he says. If it does sound like he was being mean, try to find something to empathize with (sounds like you felt the other boy was getting too rough) and then help him think of what the other boy might have been feeling when he was mean, and also think about what else he could have done in that situation.

You want to communicate your values and expectations, but also show empathy towards him. This is the most important thing in helping children develop empathy. You can address his "attitude" in this way too. If he sounds disrespectful, that's not OK, so let him know how it sounds to you. Then empathize with the feeling that might be behind it, and help him think of another way to express himself.

3 moms found this helpful


answers from Portland on

I'm not sure if it's a typo, but I'm not clear on the kicking a ball part - he kicked a ball so the other kid was hit by ball and fell? Were they playing together? A sport? Why did the mom wait 2 weeks? Or was she upset about the book incident and brought up something else in the past? If so, that seems kind of odd at least to me.

I'd let that go. Anyone who waits two weeks to bring something up, and get upset about a child not lending another a book ... seems a little off. My kids might not lend a certain child a book/toy/something ... that's up to them, and that's their choice. I don't always feel like lending certain people (even certain friends) books. Depends on how they care for things, or if they are 'special' to me.

I have a neighbor who used to come to me with her looking out for her kid, and always complained that mine were doing stuff to hers. They weren't. At first though, I questioned if they were each and every time. No one else had every mentioned anything, and I had never picked up on anything. Whereas this mom seemed a little 'off'.

It was the mom. Turned out she did this to everyone else and their kids.

So trust your gut, and just remind him to take care, and just observe him if it happens again. See how he handles himself.

All kids have off days, and not all express a lot of empathy at that age (and during teen years). They will look out for friends in general, but can be hard on each other too. Friendships change too - and remember they are not opening up to you as much as they once did.

I once had a mom call me to complain my son wasn't kind to her son, who she felt was her son's friend, and it turns out her son had dumped my son as a friend the week before. Parents sometimes get it wrong.

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answers from Norfolk on

Anyone can have a bad day from time to time.
Just remind him now and then that it never hurts to be kind.
Being kind costs him nothing and if someone else is having a bad day a little kindness might go a long way to help them feel better.

I don't know if your son and his friend have been friends for a long time but it's common for friendships to switch up a lot between elementary and middle school.
If there's a lot of squabbling going on then maybe they need a break from each other.

1 mom found this helpful
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