No Empathy from an Eight (Almost Nine) Year Old.

Updated on November 12, 2012
A.M. asks from Mesa, AZ
16 answers

Hello Moms! I am a step mother to an eight (almost nine) year old boy. My stepson is ADHD,obsessive and suffers with anxiety, has a hard time having any empathy for anyone or anything. This last week he started tickling a child that is two years younger than him at an after school program and would not stop, this little boy was extremely upset and no longer wants to go to the after school program and doesn’t even want to go to school because he doesn’t feel safe. The school program, teacher, vice principal his father and I all asked him what happened and he kept saying "I don’t know what you are talking about" or "I haven’t played with him for over a month" and even "This doesn’t sound like me" we were all lied to for over a day and a half. After telling him other children saw what happened he finally said (I started tickling this child and he was squirming on the ground and he asked me to stop but I couldn’t stop because I don’t know how to stop). The only time he showed any emotion was when he thought he was going to get in trouble. I helped him write an apology letter and we took it to the child but he doesn’t seem to have any remorse at all (he skipped to the door of their house smiling and gave the little boy the apology letter said sorry! After prompting him to say he will keep his hands to himself and it will never happen again he skipped to the car and said "that was so much fun"! I asked him why he would think that was fun and he said "because I got to stand in their house". I truly don’t know where to go with this, we went over how to apologize and to take this serious but it just doesn’t sink in. Because I know you will ask, his mother has him for four days a month and his father is slightly upset about this but thinks its normal for him to not have empathy. He is grounded for a week from TV, electronics, playdates but it doesn’t seem to matter to him at all. I have two teenagers sixteen and eighteen and both would have been emberassed and so regretful for upseting another child. Have you ever had this situation and how did you handle it? How do you teach empathy? Thank you for your suggestions.

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So What Happened?

I guess I should have explained more. This is not the first time he has upset another child, apparently it happens quite often on the bus and many parents wont let their children sit next to him or have play dates. We are a very open family and you can say at any time how you feel or what you think and be listened to. My step son is not punished harsly or beat down emotionally in any way. We are well aware children with ADHD need to be approached in a loving and guiding manner but we also need to have a learning moment when things get to a point when another child refuses to go to school and his after school program because of our child. I ralize he was tickling a child not punching him but the child was in a sense held down, could not defend himself and he is two years younger than ours. He is also aware he is doing something wrond or not telling the truth because he comes straight home to tell his dad he didnt do something wrong before we have even been informed by the teacher or the school, so he is aware there is a problem and wants to convince us otherwise. I love my step son very much and would like to help him have feelings of (happy,sad,joyful,mad,remorseful) when waranted. For example, we will ask him if he is getting excited about his birthday party and his response is "I don't get excited" or if he is sad he will break something but never cry or say how he feels and the same goes if he is mad. He will get very angry if you give him oatmeal instead of cereal but he will never say a word about it he will just be very upset and angry. hopefully this helps explain. Oh, and the discipline is for all of the lies that he told and not telling the truth


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answers from Wichita Falls on

Lack of empathy requires professional help. It's not something that a parent can tackle alone. No it is not normal for a child to show no empathy at that age. Generally they start learning between 2-4.

But one incident does not a psychopath make (the technical term for someone who lacks empathy and guilt and has overall shallow emotions). Persistent lying is a problem and that added to a what I assume was not a happy home in key developmental age (when did his parents divorce?) should trigger at least a emotional evaluation. The younger these issues are dealt with, the easier it is on the whole family.

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answers from Flagstaff on

Wow, you just described my son exactly. He was adopted 2 years ago and is 8 now, but the behaviors and lack of empathy are spot on. My son has mild attachment issues, and goes to group/play therapy where they work with kids with a lack of empathy. The group really helps him to learn how to interact with other kids. There is a group in Mesa called the Child Crisis Center who work with kids with similar problems (they used to work with us before we came up here). I also took some classes from them to help me cope. I hope they can help you, too.

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answers from Dallas on

That sounds more like an attachment disorder or something other than ADHD. I mentiony attachment disorder because one of the things kids who do not attach well or who have broken attachment (such as a parent leaving/abandoning/divocing) may do is disassociate to totally shut down their emotions. It may be something totally different. However, it is NOT normal for a 9yr old to have no empathy and to supress other emotions. He needs professional intervention. That's a hard thing for your husband to hear about his own child, and you may need to acknowledge that pain to your husband. However, he needs some help, and you are very likely punishing something that he has no conscious-level control over, so it is unlikely to be particuarly beneficial.

Personally, I would not have forced a hand-delivered written apology while he feels no remorse, as all it really did was add "lying" to his wrong-doing and reinforced that it's ok to feel nothing as long as you say the right thing.

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answers from Portland on

You teach empathy by explaining to your son how the other child feels and then going with him to apologize to the other child. While with the other child you reflect the other child's feelings back to him and your son. Then you give your son the words that express sympathy. "I'm sorry that I scared you. I won't do that again." He doesn't have to mean the words right now. He will learn about the feelings and learn to mean them with experience.

ADHD does not mean he can't learn to be sympathetic. My grandson has Asperger's and is very sympathetic even tho lack of sympathy is one possible effect of the disorder. We began teaching him about how others felt and how to sympathize when he was still a baby. I wonder if your step-son missed out on those lessons. If so, it's not too late to start teaching.

Do not expect him to recognize the feelings now. Just continue to give him experiences in recognizing how others feel. And above all reflect back to him how he feels. Is he aware when he's sad or angry? He must first recognize and be comfortable with his own feelings before he can recognize those feelings in others.

Taking away things never worked with my daughter or my grandchildren. I suggest that talking with him about his and the other child's feelings and having him apologize is sufficient discipline in this case. The purpose of discipline is to teach. Punishment, i.e. taking away toys, only makes the child angry and causes him to withdraw resulting in the I don't care attitude.

How does taking away things help the child understand how the other one feels and his role in causing those feelings? With some children you can stop the behavior but you still haven't taught them about the feelings and why their action has resulted in the punishment or what action they should take instead of the unacceptable one. Stopping the action does not help the child learn sympathy.

After your SWH: Sounds like he either doesn't know how he feels or is unable to identify his feelings or has been taught to not talk about his feelings. Acting out is his way of expressing anger. Does he laugh when he's happy? Can you see that he's excited even tho he says he doesn't get excited.

Without knowing his background I cannot even hazard a guess as to why he's this way. However, I do suggest that you have him evaluated. He doesn't know how to handle his feelings in an appropriate way.

I emphasize once more that punishing him is not effective. He needs to be emotionally supported while he learns about emotions. If you've been teaching him about emotions and he's still unable to express them I strongly urge you to get in touch with a child psychologist.

Telling on himself first does indicate that he knows when he does something wrong, while lying about it indicates that he fears punishment. Fear is not a good teacher. Fear does cause a child to hide his feelings. Taking away things has not worked. Please try a different approach.

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answers from Hartford on

I'm just posting to wave my "I agree with Anita B" banner around.

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answers from San Francisco on

I think you are right to be concerned about a lack of empathy in a child of this age, I would be worried too.
I don't understand how your husband can think this is "normal." Yes, kids this age can sometimes be thoughtless and cruel, but they should also be able to demonstrate caring and sensitivity. Please do what you can to get him in to see a counselor or therapist.

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answers from Pittsburgh on

sounds a little more extreme than just a lack of empathy. More may be involved and if it were my child I would have him at a therapist to check this out. It kind of sounds like an anti social personality disorder.

check out the link to Conduct Disorder on the above page-it explains this is how ASPD starts out in childhood.

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answers from Pittsburgh on

I have not experienced anything like this. However I did read a very interesting (and frightening) article in the NY Times last month. I think you should strongly consider a professional evaluation. Perhaps nothing is wrong, but you cannot punish someone into having empathy and children who do not develop empathy may have much much larger problems as they grow up.

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answers from Chicago on

My Boy is 9 has A.D.H.D. among other problems. But has hurt other Children when playing.. I know that My son did not intend on hurting the other kids. It is not in him to hurt anyone And my child often times has no idea why it happened. The A.D.H.D. Will just take over and it is like he Just Checks out. Punishing him will NOT help. He has Little to NO control over it! Meds can help But do not work on all children. { How I control it} "I can not let my Son play with other children one on one with out adult supervision. He is not allowed to do overnights because other parents do not understand you have to keep both eyes on him at all times. If someone is watching him you can stop the behavior before it starts.. "

If it helps you to know? But My child can no longer ride the school but and has a personal drier.. "Causing harm to himself and others."
In School he has a Pera-Pro that is beside him all day to control him. Some kids to not like to play with him and do not like him. Those are the children that run wild with no supervision. The children that love to play with him know I will be alongside him watching. Some people to not understand A.D.H.D. is a disability. If a Child was Blind you would not punish them for not being able to read the written word! If a child had A.D.H.D. you do not punish them for not being able to control themselves. It is hard but you have to adapt and except it. Never take your eyes off of him..

Children with A.D.H.D. will know what they did is wrong.. But when they did it they did not have a cohesive thought they did not understand the outcome would be or even consider it at the time. Punishment is the least helpful way of encouraging proper behavior. First of all, ADHD children are more anxious and nervous than other children, and punishment only makes these emotions worse. A nervous child cannot learn from the experience and will end up repeating the same mistake. Since punishment is generally unpleasant, it will also encourage your child to tune out on your yelling and lecturing. Finally, punishment encourages aggression, especially when a parent repeat it over and over. Punishment teaches a child that it’s all right to yell and punish someone when you feel frustrated about something that person did.

************And the empathy part seems to be your biggest concern. My child is has little empathy Most A.D.H.D. kids have "no empathy" You must try to TEACH him empathy.. I am working on this and have been told it we do no get it under control it is most likely he will be narcissistic as a adult..************ I am sorry I did not realize the empathy was your biggest problem..

As for the lies he is looking for attention...

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answers from Oklahoma City on

How about some family therapy to get some input into helping him emotionally plug in. He needs some extra help establishing strong relationships. Family therapy can help with that. Also, I would start volunteering with him to expose him to people in need. That can help establish empathy.

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answers from Los Angeles on

Do you see this often in his every day life? Or is this a rare occasion? Maybe he needs to start being engaged in more civic and charity/helping others activities on a regular basis. I think this is really important to teach any child the importance of giving back.

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answers from Albuquerque on

Well first off, settle down. Don't freak out. seems that most of these answers are a bit extreme. I think your step son has an autism spectrum disorder. Please google autism spectrum disorders. He's probably got aspergers (a highly functioning autism disorder) but it may be more serious than that. Anyhow, there are many boys out there with this disorder and it doesn't require psychoanalysis or anything like that. there are many ways to help them and teach them what they need. You can find lots of help online and elsewhere. Just don't settle for it or figure that you can't do anything. I suggest you read "the Curious Incident of the Dog at Night" by Jodi Picoult. The language is a bit rough but other than that it is extremely helpful. Best wishes and If I can answer any questions or help at all, please ask.

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answers from Washington DC on

I'm not sure it's just the ADHD. Has he been evaluated for anything else?

My SD would be totally stoic while you laid out a consequence and it was like she switched off til you were done (she STILL does this - we told her why she couldn't take her car to campus and she stonefaced us) and then she moved on. BUT we also learned that she does have things that matter to her, like social time. So if the TV doesn't matter, try something else.

Are there any programs in your area that teach empathy for others, maybe through working with animals? Would he benefit from a program where he learns martial arts or something else where he must learn to discipline himself?

If the other child won't go to after care, the after care may eventually decide not to take SS anymore, so this really needs to be addressed and it may be that he needs professional help to get to the bottom of it.

Edit to add: Your additional info made me wonder if there's a problem due to whatever situation is going on with his parents. Has he ever received any therapy for dealing with the split? It seems like more than not being able to control himself, he's unable to accurately express emotions and may have a lot of anger. My SS shuts down when emotions get too strong and I think that had a lot to do with the way his mother would scream. Better to not say anything than to get her wrath. . When he was 12, DH got him into football because his play fighting started not to be so playful and DH didn't like how he was being aggressive toward his father. It helped. So I suggest therapy and also looking into an outlet for some of his pent up emotions.

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answers from Chicago on

He may have something more wrong with him.

Other than that fact, he also may have an extreme coping mechanism.

Oftentimes my SD will get in trouble. I've posted about this. She will get in HUGE trouble, and then a few minutes later she's smiling and laughing. I don't understand this!

What we've discovered (and it took a while to discover this) is my SD is VERY GOOD at "forgetting" or not confronting what just happened. She won't "let" herself realize what she just did. She has an extreme coping mechanism. She puts up all sorts of mental barriers. She makes HUGE excuses in her mind where it's not her fault, or she ignores the situation entirely.

What I did to discover this, is she had gotten in trouble for breaking a vase. Now, it really wasn't a big deal to me because it was a cheap vase. However, she broke it, and didn't tell us. She picked up the pieces and took them outside to the garbage so we wouldn't find out. Like I wouldn't notice that the vase of flowers that was on the table wasn't missing! She didn't vacuum up the glass though, so my husband stepped on a piece of glass and cut his foot.

My husband was furious (which doesn't happen often) and he yelled at her. About 3 minutes later (and I'm not kidding) she was SINGING and skipping and dancing around the house, while my husband was still trying to get the glass out of his foot. No remorse. None.

So we sat her down and made her confront what happened. It took a lot for us to do this. We had to get through all the barriers she put up. First, she had convinced herself that she didn't even do it! Here we were yelling at her and she was sitting there, convincing herself that she didn't do it!

After we got her to admit that she did it, we had to peel away all the excuses she had made for herself. We did this by asking her over and over why it happened. When she gave us an excuse "It happened because the cat made me" we said "That's not the reason. Tell us why it happened."

Finally, the tears started. And the whole story came out. She admitted it happened because she was doing gymnastics in the house when she knew she wasn't supposed to, and she kicked the table and that knocked the vase over and it rolled off the table and broke. No excuses this time.

After the tears, we got a real apology. And she started acting truly remorseful.

For us, we have to help my SD really confront what happened in order to get the right reaction. She's very good at pushing the blame elsewhere, or even convincing herself she didn't do it! It's not that she doesn't have any remorse, she does. It's that she's very good at not accepting the blame so a feeling of remorse is not possible. FIRST you have to take responsibility. Then the feeling of remorse will occur naturally.

I would bet that your SS had convinced himself in his mind that he didn't do it. That's why he didn't tell you the truth. Telling the truth was admitting that he did it. Then, once the truth came out, he has excuses in his mind that make it "not his fault." The fact that he couldn't make himself stop. Of course he could!

He needs to truly confront what he did, and apology notes won't work. Punishments don't work because he turns himself into a martyr (he feels he's being wrongly punished, and while he may suffer through the punishment, he's still convinced himself it's not his fault.)

He needs to admit to wrongdoing, and he needs to admit it to himself.

Good luck!

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answers from San Francisco on

You need to address the things he does wrong without making him feel that he is a terrible person. I think you and his dad are probably too punitive in response to his transgressions, and he is therefore responding like he doesn't care. You are causing him to be defensive, by being too harsh, so he can't get to the point where he can empathize, because he is stuck in feeling bad about himself. He had five adults staring him down and interrogating him, for crying out loud. His defensiveness is a normal enough response to that.

Your job is a parent is to guide him, and this can be done gently, while still being effective. This is something I know intimately, because my mother was so harsh in her judgments of anything I did "wrong." I was just a little kid, doing normal little kid things, for pete's sake, and she made me feel like the devil. I "stole" an apple when I was five, for example, and you would have thought I had robbed a bank at gunpoint, by her reaction. I don't think I really knew it was stealing. All she would have needed to say was, "Honey, we don't take things that don't belong to us -- people work hard for what they have."

Similarly, you need to state things to your stepson just that simply. He probably didn't know that excessive tickling could be that painful. He was tickling the kid, not throwing him down on the ground and punching him out.

Remember you are GUIDING him, not punishing him. He is a kid, and he is still learning. So as a guide, you say to him, "Honey, tickling people seems okay, but when you do it too long it can actually be painful. Please be careful how long you tickle someone, and if they want you to stop, please do so." And let it go at that. You don't need to punish him by taking away his things for a week for a first offense, or you will make him feel like the devil, and you will NOT create empathy that way.

Keep it light. If you assume there is something emotionally wrong with the kid, he will get that message, and embody it. I think you need to remove all those punishments, and only reinstate them if he does this two more times. Take a three strikes kind of attitude. If he does it three times - THEN it's something to worry about. Until then, stick to GUIDING.

Like Sarah said, "one incident does not a psychopath make."

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answers from Houston on

Like Cheryl B. from San Pablo, I am scared of him, too. I am also scared for any person in his path. he may say a coach or teacher OR EVEN YOU 'touch' him inappropiately.

He is a danger.

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