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LucyGransnet (GNHQ) Thu 12-Jan-17 16:36:50

Empathy Walks and why they're important

Are today's children lacking in empathy? Psychotherapist William Pullen thinks so - which is why he has invented the epathy walk. Should you take your grandchildren on one?

William Pullen

Empathy Walks and why they're important

Posted on: Thu 12-Jan-17 16:36:50


Lead photo

Would you take an empathy walk with your grandchildren?

We all know that getting out and getting moving is a tried and tested method to raise the spirit – as they say, 'movement is medicine'. But how about if you could go for a walk and learn an important skill too? As a psychotherapist I wanted to examine this further, and have now developed a form of psychotherapy, Dynamic Running Therapy. It blends walking or running, with psychotherapy and the outdoors and, drawing on the healing qualities of conversation, movement and nature, it includes exercises intended to help children learn the skills of talking and listening. These exercises are specifically designed to improve the levels of empathy in children.

Why is this important? Well, research from the University of Michigan shows a dramatic decline in empathy among the young over the last 30 years, with the steepest decline reported in the last 10 years. Psychologists, parents and teachers are reporting an 'empathy crisis'. No one is sure what is influencing this dramatic change - it could overuse of technology or gaming, superficial networks of friends, reduced participation in clubs and other social organisations or a dozen other possibilities. Everyone is too busy to really sit down and spend time with one another and when they do is brief and often involves electronic devices. Children don’t know any better and are learning this behaviour, in part, from their parents.

Psychologists, parents and teachers are reporting an 'empathy crisis'. No one is sure what is influencing this dramatic change - it could overuse of technology or gaming, superficial networks of friends, reduced participation in clubs and other social organisations or a dozen other possibilities.

The good news is that the researchers at the University of Michigan believe that empathy is highly fluid, meaning that it can potentially increase as easily as it decreases. Through a combination of question and answer sessions about everything from nature to friendships, concerns at school or home, 'empathy walks' (or runs) can create a bridge across the 'empathy gap'.

One of the greatest gifts you can give your grandchild is a sense of being seen and heard – and these walks give you one-on-one time together to make that happen, to get your grandchild talking, listening properly and asking questions.

How best to do this? Well, first of all listen. Listening is what empathy is all about.

Also have fun – be creative, use your imagination, teach your grandchildren about plants, tress, flowers and most of all, how the outdoors is a wonderful place in which to play and experiment.

Ask questions: about nature, schoolwork, friendships, emotions – happiness/unhappiness, kindness, courage, anger.

Don't worry about where, how far or the pace at which you walk. Just get outside and explore. It's about connecting with nature and your grandchild and helping them to talk, listen and above all, empathise.

Example Questions to ask on the walk

- Do you think you are a good friend? Why?
- How could you make a friend feel better without using any words?
- When you forgive someone, how does it feel afterwards?
- When you were last angry or sad, what made you feel better? Did someone help you?
- How could you help someone feel more confident?
- What is the kindest thing anyone has ever done for you?
- How would you make someone feel happier if they were sad?

William's book, Run For Your Life, is published by Penguin and is available from Amazon.

By William Pullen

Twitter: @Pullentherapy

Jayanna9040 Thu 12-Jan-17 17:28:15

Gosh, to think grandparents never did this till it was invented!

Jayanna9040 Thu 12-Jan-17 17:34:59

Oh now I've actually read down to the questions bit, I think it's terrible. Can't you just walk and chat? Or have I been doing it wrong all these years?

annsixty Thu 12-Jan-17 17:48:48

Obviously we all have.

grannyqueenie Thu 12-Jan-17 17:55:43

I'm all for using gently probing questions with children, or adults for that matter, when there's a specific worry or problem causing concern and I'm trying to tease out what's really going on. But it seems like the article wants us to turn every interaction into a therapy session, children are very astute and would just think it was weird and clam up or as my 2 teenage granddaughters would say "that's a bit random"! If we spend time with children just doing ordinary stuff, having fun and making it clear we love them and are interested in their lives the chances are they'll be open to talk about their worries anyway.

Jalima Thu 12-Jan-17 18:12:01

Actually, if we go for a walk we are usually looking at the trees, different leaves, flowers, toadstools, trying to identify them, looking for a good stickman, birds, a squirrel etc.

How could I have got it all so wrong?

jacksmum Thu 12-Jan-17 18:26:01

I have always walked with my g/children ,from tiny babies in prams ,onwards we chat about our surroundings and about life, i have never needed prompting with questions to ask, could i ask is the OP a grandparent? as i am sure these types of walks and chats we have are normal and have been for many years.

Greyduster Thu 12-Jan-17 18:27:23

It is hard enough these days to get our ten year old out for a walk unless he has a friend with him or a football to kick all the way there and all the way back, but the minute I started trying to make questions like that pass for normal conversation, he would think I was very weird and would indeed "run for his life" I should think!

M0nica Thu 12-Jan-17 19:52:13

I can see where he is coming from and where he is trying to go to but I am not sure whether his suggestions actually address the issue

If you are the kind of family who go on walks with children and grandchildren with conversation going where fancy takes it, then these kinds of conversations are likely to be already taking place.

The kinds of families the children he wants to help are in are probably those who would no more go for a walk in the woods with their children and talk than put their phones down and talk to them when eating out at Pizza Express or Macdonalds.

Jalima Thu 12-Jan-17 20:00:50

- Do you think you are a good friend? Why?
I like her

- How could you make a friend feel better without using any words?

- When you forgive someone, how does it feel afterwards?

- When you were last angry or sad, what made you feel better? Did someone help you?
I pushed my sister, that made me feel better

- How could you help someone feel more confident?

- What is the kindest thing anyone has ever done for you?
Father Christmas brought me the toy I wanted

- How would you make someone feel happier if they were sad?
Dance up and down and make silly faces

thatbags Thu 12-Jan-17 21:51:31


Luckygirl Thu 12-Jan-17 22:10:29

I hate these contrived ideas, designed to manipulate children.

Empathy is learned by example - by how a child is treated by their parents; and how adults in the family treat each other.

In our local primary school there is a bench that any child who is on their own or unhappy in some way can go and sit - and the other children are expected to go and see how they can help. Empathy in action as part of the every day ethos of the school.

M0nica Fri 13-Jan-17 16:50:59

Lucky You have put your finger right on the spot: Empathy is learned by example

Yorkshiregel Sat 14-Jan-17 11:18:43

I have a lovely video of my GS walking through the woods whistling a little tune to himself and poking the leaves with a stick. Jumping in the puddles in his wellies, knocking on 'doors' in the roots of trees and generally having a lovely walk outdoors, in the fresh air.

He was 4 yrs old. Now he is 13yrs old and still loves being in the great outdoors. No doubt at all that he will choose being outside than being in an office when it comes to work.

Greenfinch Sat 14-Jan-17 11:49:34

In my laziness I ask cant all this be done sitting by the fire ? Then you can have eye contact and true listening can happen.

trisher Sat 14-Jan-17 15:01:28

Jalima so true. Can I add Gds current response to most things just now "Pooh"
accompanied by a peal of laughter. Alternatively she thinks the funniest word in the world is "knickers". I blame the nursery and her friends.grin

Jalima Sat 14-Jan-17 15:04:38

I asked DGD (age 4) what is brown and sticky (naughty granny blush)
The answer is supposed to be 'poo' and lots of giggles, then you say 'No, it's a stick'.

DGD said 'A tree?'

She's cleverer than me, that girl!

M0nica Sat 14-Jan-17 16:19:39

There is a very good Flanders and Swan song called 'Pee, po, belly, bum drawers'.

Greyduster Sat 14-Jan-17 16:21:58

'^ask questions about schoolwork^'. If I ask my grandson what they've been doing in class when I pick him up from school, I just get "oh the usual". Ditto "Did you play any good games at break?" If I don't ask him, he will generally volunteer the information himself - eventually. I generally get the best response when I am led by him. We went for a walk a couple of weeks ago and were throwing sticks in a stream. The current took his stick along and then it turned back on itself and came back towards us. "Why did it do that?" he asked. This is like a gift of diamonds from an intelligent child but one who in general does not ask a lot of questions. So now, he knows a bit about currents and eddies, how the stream bed affects them, and why there are slow bits and fast bits, etc. If he gets even an inkling that I am probing him for personal information, he will either clam up or remove himself from the room. The older they get, the more sensitive they seem to be about revealing stuff about themselves.

M0nica Sat 14-Jan-17 21:05:06

I find the best questions come while sitting around the dining table. Over Christmas DGS, aged six, looked up from his lunch and said 'If the universe is always expanding and goes on forever, where is heaven?

MargaretX Sat 14-Jan-17 22:16:39

These blogs are mostly on topics which somebody writes about but that most of us take for grmnted. Children whose evolutionary goal in life is to survive are not naturally empathetic.

Which doesn't mean that they won't show empathy when the themselves are parents.
Empathy can be taught or praciced. When Ma in law was widowed I taught DH how to show more empathy on the telephone.
I myself learned in doing social work.
Now a walk with a grandchild is called an empathy walk-whatever next?

MargaretX Sat 14-Jan-17 22:17:48

I wish I could edit my post....

Jalima Sat 14-Jan-17 23:09:32

It's OK MargaretX - I realised ages ago that there is no spell check on GN grin

Very occasionally I remember to do a preview of a post but mostly I read them afterwards and think oh dear!

Elrel Sat 14-Jan-17 23:44:33

Yet again were taught how to suck eggs.
As Monica and others have posted this just isn't going to happen for the children who most need it. There are still children in our cities who are unfamiliar with the countryside.
When I lived in North Wales friends who did mountain rescue had helped a couple of teenage boys who got stuck rock climbing. They just happened to be passing and saw the boys who had unsuitable clothes and shoes and no equipment. Afterwards they said how pleased they'd been that the boys turned out to be local as so few local youths got out into the mountains.

DaphneBroon Sun 15-Jan-17 00:14:17

Sounds more like an interrogation!
I hate the way some adults think you talk to children by bombarding them with questions -school, sports, more school shock yawn
I would much rather let DGC decide what to tell or ask me, to talk about what we see around us, see shapes in the clouds, look out for squirrels or particular birds (usually LBJs, little brown jobs) or if DGC is still young enough, chant our way through the entirety of Bear Hunt as loud as we can!
"Empathy walks" sound boooooooooring sad