Does your child have empathy? Or should I ask, do you have empathy? One of the best ways to teach empathy is by modeling it for your child. If you show your child how to be empathetic with your actions, they will learn from you. But teaching empathy goes beyond being a positive role model for your child.
WHAT IS EMPATHY AND WHY IT’S IMPORTANT
Empathy is such an important virtue to possess in life. When you have empathy, you are able to actively value another person’s perspective and respond with care and concern. Empathy is about having compassion and having the ability to envision how someone else is feeling in a particular situation and responding with understanding. It’s something that parents can nurture in their child’s lives as they grow and mature but it’s never too early to start! Some people are born empathetic and it comes naturally for them. But not all people have empathy and it can be a complex skill that some people need to mindfully learn and practice.
WHO STRUGGLES WITH EMPATHY
The more egocentric a person is, the harder it is for them to be empathetic. That being said, toddlers and teenagers will have the hardest time having and showing empathy to others. Also, if a child doesn’t know a multitude of emotions and or isn’t able to freely express emotions in their home, they may have a more difficult time being empathetic to others. Children on the Autism Spectrum, for example, also have a challenging time showing compassion, empathy, and effectively having perspective taking with others.
HOW PARENTS CAN CULTIVATE EMPATHY WITH THEIR CHILDREN
PLAY IT OUT
Children love to play and play is necessary for them to learn and make sense of their world and various skills on how to function in their world. So I suggest, getting a box of bandages and have your child nurse their doll or stuffed animal and help them “feel better” by taking care of them. This will help children notice when friends are hurt and want to help them and take care of them.
PRACTICE AND DEFINE EMOTIONS
Children need to know emotions before they can express them and understand how others are feeling. So I suggest playing an emotion game where you make a face and your child has to name the emotion you are feeling. Then, your child makes the same face and describes a time when they felt that emotion.
If your child gets hurt or gets a bad grade, try not to invalidate them or dismiss them by just saying “it’s ok” but instead model what it’s like to show empathy. You can say, “How does this grade make you feel?” and “What can I do to help support you?” and “What can I do to help you feel better?” If your child is willing to listen, you can name them their strengths and encourage them to keep trying to get a better grade next time.
TAKE ANOTHER PERSPECTIVE
Talk about how someone feels in a particular situation that you see on television or in real life and ask your child, “How must they feel?” Once you establish how the other person feels, you can talk about what that person can do the next time to act differently with more empathy. You can also teach your child to initiate asking others “how are you feeling today” or “how are you doing today” but if they have trouble initiating it, teach them to respond this way to someone asking them first, to show them that you care about them. A conversation between a family member or a friend is about giving and receiving, listening and responding.
PRIORITIZE KINDNESS AND INCLUSION
Kindness goes a long way. Teach your child to choose kindness and inclusion. Teach your child that if they see a child playing or eating lunch by themselves, have them initiate a conversation with that child and invite them to play or eat with them. If they see that a friend is hurt physically or emotionally, teach your child to ask them how they are feeling and how they can help.
Practice doing something nice for a friend who is sick, hurt, or had a bad day. Your child can draw them a picture or make them a card or a craft and deliver it to their doorstep. If your child is older, they can send a text, email, or call their friend to check on them.
VOLUNTEER AND GIVE
Have your child practice giving to others. Maybe they can volunteer at a local food bank or animal shelter. Maybe they can gather outgrown toys and give them to Salvation Army or Goodwill. Maybe they can save allowance money and buy some new toys to give to a local Children’s Hospital or Toys for Tots around the holidays. Or maybe they can draw pictures to give to individuals at a retirement center.
HOST A FAMILY MEETING
Schedule a family meeting in your home once a week. At the meeting, let everyone in the family have a turn speaking and sharing. This will provide your child the opportunity to practice listening to others and their feelings as well as have the opportunity to express themselves and their needs.
REFLECT AND LISTEN
It is important to teach children to listen to how others are feeling and then to reflect on how they are feeling. It is just as important to listen to how other’s are feeling, if not more, as to reflect on how they are feeling. Listening is a very important skill to learn and practice. If you don’t listen carefully to someone, you may miss understanding how they are really feeling and how to respond and reflect properly.
MAKE A REPAIR
When a conflict arises, you can have your child practice making a repair. If they take a toy away from another child or a sibling, you can have your child reflect on how that made the other child feel and then follow up with asking your child what they can do differently next time and how they can make it better this time. This might mean a verbal apology, a written apology letter, an apology drawing, and even a hug.
EXAMPLE CONVERSATION OF TEACHING EMPATHY
Child 1: Pulls toy away from their sibling
Child 2: Starts crying
Parent: How did it make your sibling feel when you took their toy away?
Child 1: It made them feel mad and sad
Parent: So what can you do now?
Child 1: Apologize and give the toy back
Parent: What can you do differently next time?