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How can I build some empathy in my stepson?

He's usually a kind-hearted kid, especially when it comes to his little sister. He gives her the loose change from his pocket to put in her piggy bank. He takes her to the park or out to get doughnuts at the gas station. He buys her toys and puzzles and things at the thrift store.

The problem comes in because his little sister adores him and tries to do things for him in return. Granted, they're not as awesome as what he does for her--she's five and he's seventeen. But this week, in preparation for his coming, she made him a colorful bead bracelet on fishing line. Not exactly a grand slam gift for a teenage boy, but she was excited because it had his favorite colors on it. He blew it off and tossed it on the coffee table. She was devastated. She saved him the personal-sized box of Honey Nut Cheerios, which he likes, from her cereal pack. He kind of mumbled "thanks" and tossed it on the counter. She saved him a Rollo, he said he didn't want it. Last time he went home, she cried because she'd drawn him a picture to hang on the wall in his room at his mom's house, and he didn't take it with him.

He's a good big brother. Better than many, I thinhk. I'm glad he loves her, actually glad he wants anything to do with her. Am I asking too much that I wish he would at least pretend to be excited by her little gifts and offerings of kindness? How can I encourage him to see what she does for him?


Asked by Ballad at 3:11 PM on Oct. 19, 2013 in General Parenting

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Answers (18)
  • You can not force someone to have empathy. But you can teach them how be be good gift recipients. I think it is important for people to know how to graciously accept gifts. I can not tell you haw many times we have been at an event where gifts were given and the receivers were rude about the gift.

    Maybe a formula for how to accept a gift might be helpful for him.

    One... Look the person in the eyes and say thank you for the gift.
    Two... Find something you do like about the gift and tell the giver what that is.
    Three... Tell the person that you appreciate their thoughtfulness.

    This is a great lesson for everybody.

    Answer by SleepingBeautee at 4:58 PM on Oct. 19, 2013

  • You've stated that he's on the spectrum before and, add to that fact that he's a teenage boy & I think you're expecting far too much from him.

    Answer by 3libras at 4:46 PM on Oct. 19, 2013

  • Ballad, raising two sons myself, he's actually being a normal 17 year old boy.
    I've always had to encourage my sons to show a little bit of emotion when someone does something nice for them.
    Generally they were this way with family more so than strangers.
    Funny how we treat strangers better than family, Ian' t it.

    I guess all I can add is to be thankful he takes time for her and thinks of her. Which, by explaining to your daughter, this is how he shows he loves her.

    Answer by KTElite at 4:55 PM on Oct. 19, 2013

  • KTElite, no.

    But I think I lean that way, lol!

    I have friends who are, and have benefited from therapy myself. I care a lot about what experiences promote mental health, particularly when it comes to parenting choices.

    Answer by girlwithC at 4:47 PM on Oct. 19, 2013

  • I just had to ask. Your answers are so long and involved, it would only make sense that you were.
    Thanks for responding.

    Answer by KTElite at 4:50 PM on Oct. 19, 2013

  • Most young adults really don't think that much beyond themselves. While I am sure she has tender feelings about his reactions, they are not all that abnormal for a boy of that age. Does he like to eat anything in particular (cookies)? Maybe have her make him some cookies. Even if they are just the kind already made but you have to bake them. Boys that age really like to eat, so maybe go that route. Then he will get something sweet from it and she can feel like he appreciates what she did for him.

    Answer by QuinnMae at 5:15 PM on Oct. 19, 2013

  • Having a 19 year old son with Asperger's, I totally understand what you mean. I myself am hopeful one day I will hear my son say "I love you Mom" Haven't heard it yet. I like sleeping Beautee"s idea. Sit him down and teach him. Say, "Here is the proper response you give when someone gives you something."

    One... Look the person in the eyes and say thank you for the gift.
    Two... Find something(anything) you do like about the gift and tell the giver what that is.
    Three... Tell the person that you appreciate their thoughtfulness.

    I would also tell your daughter that her brother does like the things she does, but he has a hard time showing how he feels. Maybe they can come up with a signal. I used to tell my son, if he nodded after I told him I loved him, that would be his way to say I love you back.



    Answer by musicmaker at 3:16 AM on Oct. 20, 2013

  • Have you told him he is hurting his sisters feeling when he acted like he doesn't care about her gifts to her?

    Answer by louise2 at 4:18 PM on Oct. 19, 2013

  • Experiencing empathy yourself is what encourages/develops empathy for others in you.
    Too bad it's so counter-intuitive. People overwhelmingly tend to respond to situations like this by offering instruction--instructing a person to be more empathetic, rather than by having empathy for that person's responses!
    There is nothing wrong with pointing out (via literal, objective observations) what is happening in the various interactions, identifying the unintended result, in hopes of raising consciousness about it all. You even can ask the person to consider responding differently. But if you want to support the development of true empathy in someone, the best way is to show empathy for HIS experience!! That would be acknowledging that the "gift" of cereal was maybe no big deal to him, or maybe he didn't care to put on the bracelet or wasn't certain what to do/didn't like it, he wasn't interested in candy or the drawing...

    Answer by girlwithC at 4:39 PM on Oct. 19, 2013

  • girlwithC, are you a therapist?

    Answer by KTElite at 4:42 PM on Oct. 19, 2013