Empathy is the ability to really understand another’s feelings or experience from their perspective, putting yourself in their shoes. It shows we value the person, their opinions and experiences just as we value our own. Empathy plays an important role in all interpersonal relationships… family, friends, peers, co-workers, and the larger community. It allows us to recognize how our actions impact others. Empathy halts violent and cruel behavior and urges us to treat others kindly. Raising kind, compassionate, empathic children is a goal for many parents and ideally might be a goal for our society at large, as our children are our next generation of leaders, caretakers, and decision-makers. Developing empathy can set a child up for long-term success in life.
Children are born with a capacity to care for others and to understand their experiences, but this skill must be developed to see its full expression. In order to do this successfully, parents must live empathy and instill it in their children daily.
Be a Model: Show empathy to your child and those around you. Make a concerted effort not to dismiss others’ feelings, but validate them, all of them. Remember all feelings are okay. Allow your child to experience their feelings, without shaming anyone for them. Try to understand and label feelings behind people’s behaviors. In taking the time to think about and process your own emotions, you are also modeling emotional regulation to your kids.
Teach: In order for kids to care about the feelings of others, they need to have self-awareness of their own. Use observations of their body language to build your child’s emotional vocabulary. Make sure you look at your child when you are talking to them. Help your child recognize and interpret facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice. Encourage thinking and talking to promote curiosity and compassion. Use your child’s natural environment to assist them in identifying others’ feelings (ex – characters in books, TV shows, movies). Explore what led to different feelings. Encouraging this type of thinking strengthens a child’s ability to empathize with others, promoting care and concern. Help children to recognize different people can feel differently in the same situation. Help children consider how they might feel if they were in a similar situation. Talking about feelings helps children become emotionally literate. When your child recognizes feelings in others, connect it to what the person might need to change his mood or be comforted. You can also encourage your children to tell you what happened in a conflict from the other person’s perspective to further build these skills. Perspective taking – seeing things from another’s point of view – builds empathy. Teach children to care. Care for others, animals, and our environment. In developing concern it helps children learn that all existence is valuable and we are all connected.
Encourage Teamwork: Encourage collaboration. Empathy is “we” not “me.” Collaboration promotes curiosity about others, teaches tolerance, and encourages children to challenge their assumptions. It promotes taking others’ perspectives. Teach your child that the world does not revolve around them. Encourage play. Playing with peers provides children with opportunities to learn about social skills, negotiation, and conflict resolution. By allowing children to resolve their own conflicts, it helps build self-confidence and self-sufficiency. Feeling confident in managing adversity is imperative in developing empathy. It allows children to consider the impact certain behaviors have on others and stand up for those who are unable to stand up for themselves. Building confidence allows children to feel positively about themselves and cope and think for themselves, reducing the likelihood of them becoming victim to peer pressure and treating peers poorly. Instead of rushing to fix things, allow your kids to experience negative emotions. They are a part of life and kids need to learn how to process and cope with all of their emotions, not just the good ones. Parents cannot save a child from feeling hurt, angry, disappointed, or sad. Instead, honor their emotional experience and let them know they are not alone in it.
Set Expectations: Set expectations of kindness through how you treat your children, how you expect your children to treat you and their siblings, and how all family members treat others. Expect your child do say or do kind things for someone else daily. Help your children see how their acts of kindness impact others. Make kindness part of your daily routine. After conflicts, discuss how everyone was feeling and establish the expectation of validating emotional experiences. Make service a family affair. Volunteering with your children teaches them the importance of giving back and understanding the experience of those less privileged. Doing small tasks for friends and neighbors helps kids make change and not just talk about it.
Give Praise: Reinforce empathic behavior. When you see your child being caring, kind, and compassionate towards, others point it out. Show them how others respond to their actions.
In Summary: As illustrated in the above points, talking about empathy is important, but to really build the skillset for a child to be empathic, it must be lived throughout all aspects of life. Challenge yourself to build your empathy muscle: Are you able empathize with another’s emotional experience, even if you disagree with the person? When we feel someone empathizes with us, we are better able to have a positive, respectful, healthy relationship with them. Teaching your child the skill of empathy gives your child the foundation for healthy relating.