“Can you write a post about how kids can learn empathy?” asked my husband. “I was having a tough time getting through to our son about how his actions were affecting his brother.”
I don’t have a blog post about empathy? I wondered. But I discuss it all the time.
And for good reason. Empathy has so many benefits, both for our kids and for more effective parenting. For instance:
- Children get along better with other kids because they can put themselves in their shoes.
- Children can regulate their anger, such as during meltdowns and when they’re over excited.
- Children can separate other people’s emotions from theirs. A child may get upset when he sees another child cry. But with empathy, he learns that the other child is the one who really needs help.
Effective ways of teaching our kids to show empathy:
#1: Create a happy home.
Empathy is the ability to understand and share someone else’s feelings. But if you’re a child whose needs aren’t met, then other people’s feelings won’t even cross your mind. When you meet your children’s needs, only then can they think of others.
Take, for instance, your hungry child. He’s probably crabby, right? And the last thing he wants to think about is how hurt his sister must have felt when he grabbed a toy from her hand. But with his needs met, he has more room to put himself in other people’s shoes. Why? He doesn’t have to worry about his own needs.
Creating a happy home extends to your child’s emotions, as well. Carve enough time for cuddles and affection. Give him uninterrupted attention, even for as little as 10 minutes a day. When he feels he’s listened to and connected with you, he won’t lack for attention. He’s likelier to think of others and not just himself.
#2: Discuss being in other people’s shoes.
One of my son’s school friends was crying because he didn’t want to go home after a play date. “Looks like he doesn’t want to go home, huh?” I told my son. “He was having so much fun and doesn’t understand why he has to go home just now.”
Describe what other people are feeling. Sympathy is feeling bad for someone else. Empathy is imagining what it must feel like for someone else.
Your child shouldn’t be so consumed with others’ feelings, she can’t separate her emotions. But you do want her to put herself in other people’s shoes enough to understand what that person is feeling.
Besides pointing out other people’s feelings, discuss your own feelings. “I get hurt when you talk back to me that way,” or “I’m so excited to spend the day with you!”
When you read books, discuss what the characters must be feeling. “Why do you think the dog felt sad when the other classmates wouldn’t believe his story?”
#3: Highlight common interests and feelings.
Empathy is difficult to show when you assume others are different from you. How can we imagine what the person at the opposite of where you stand is going through when we have nothing in common?
But teach your child to peel back those assumptions and find common ground. Highlight similarities and interests between your child and others. They might both be big brothers, or have the same toy, or attend a new school.
When we mention similarities, our kids realize we all have common interests. It’ll be easier for them to show empathy when they can imagine others having the same feelings.
#4: Mention how their actions affect others.
“Look… you helped your brother feel better,” I told my son. Many times, when one of the kids cry, another will grab a stuffed animal or coveted toy and hand it to the tearful one. I want my kids to know how their kindness affects others.
Sometimes the actions aren’t so positive. I’ve had to remind my son not to yell into his brothers’ faces—no matter how excited he may be. Doing so makes them feel scared or overwhelmed.
#5: Model empathy.
Here’s a great way to model empathy: The next time your child acts up, see the situation from his point of view. Before you discipline, acknowledge what it must feel like from his perspective.
Take this scenario I recently had with my child. You and your son are walking to the car when he realizes he lost the happy face sticker his teacher placed on his hand.
“I want to go back and look for it,” he whimpers, chin quivering. Meanwhile, you just want to get to the car already and prevent any outburst. Rather than dismiss his emotions, you can acknowledge them instead:
“You lost the sticker on your hand? You feel pretty bad you don’t have it anymore, don’t you?” You might say. “You felt special when your teacher gave that to you, and now you’re sad you don’t have it anymore. I would feel sad too if I lost something special. Tell you what: How about we find another sticker at home that we can put on your hand.”
Trust me, that situation smoothed over much quicker than if I had told him to get over it. Or that the sticker wasn’t important (even if to me, it’s just a darn sticker).
Model empathy and feel what it must be like in your child’s shoes. She’ll learn best by how she sees you in action.
Get more tips about empathy:
- It’s Not Too Late: How to Unspoil Your Child
- 10 Children’s Books about Being Kind
- How to Stop Your Child from Interrupting and What to Do Instead
- How to Stop Siblings from Fighting and Teach Conflict Resolution Instead
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