Empathy has long been touted as one of the most critical skills for children to have. Learn how to teach kids empathy toward others.
Kids aren’t born thinking of others.
In fact, even as toddlers, they still think everything in sight is theirs for the taking. They don’t always know that they’ve hurt others, besides an adult reprimanding them. They don’t even know what emotions are, why they experience them, or the words to use to describe how they feel.
As you can imagine, this can affect how they relate to others.
Your child might not realize how her words upset her brother, or that he wouldn’t exactly like it if she taunted him about winning. She doesn’t know how to respond when a friend is upset at the park.
Of course, this all comes with time. There isn’t one magical moment when kids learn and practice empathy toward others. Some days, these experiences serve as learning moments, while others, they’re back to thinking only of themselves.
How to teach kids empathy
Still, if you’re here, you know that we can do plenty to teach kids empathy. After all, empathy has so many benefits, both for our kids and to make raising them a little easier. For instance:
- Kids get along better with others because they can put themselves in their shoes.
- They can regulate their emotions, such as during meltdowns and when they’re over excited.
- They can separate other people’s emotions from their own. A child may get upset when she sees another child cry. But with empathy, she learns that the other child is the one who really needs help.
With all these benefits, what are the top tips on how to teach kids empathy?
1. Model empathy
As always, the best ways to teach is to do it yourself. Your child will learn so much by following your example than with anything you say.
The next time she acts up, see the situation from her point of view. Acknowledge what it must feel like being in her shoes. Let’s say you’re walking to the car when she realizes she lost the happy face sticker her teacher placed on her hand.
“I want to go back and look for it,” she whimpers, chin quivering. Meanwhile, you just want to get to the car already and prevent any outburst. Rather than dismiss her emotions, 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.”
That situation will smooth over much quicker than if you had told her to get over it or that the sticker isn’t important. Model empathy and feel what it must be like in her shoes—she’ll learn best by how she sees you in action.
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2. 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 child’s needs, only then can he think of others.
Take, for instance, your hungry child. He’s probably crabby, right? 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.
Creating a happy home extends to his emotions, as well.
Carve enough time for cuddles and affection, and give him uninterrupted attention, even for as little as 10 minutes a day. When he feels that he’s listened to and connected with you, he won’t lack for attention and will be likelier to think of others.
3. Discuss being in other people’s shoes
Describe what other people are feeling. Sympathy is feeling bad for someone else, but empathy is imagining what it must feel like.
One time, a classmate of my son 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.”
Your child shouldn’t be so consumed with others’ feelings that 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 could be experiencing.
Besides pointing out how other people might feel, 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?”
4. Mention how your child’s actions affect others
“Oh 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 one of them not to yell into his brothers’ faces—no matter how excited he may be. Doing so makes them feel scared or overwhelmed.
By pointing out how your child’s actions affect others, she can become more aware of the consequences of her choices on them.
5. 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 end 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 sisters, or have the same toy, or attend a new school.
When you mention similarities, she’ll realize that she and another child have common interests. It’ll be easier for her to show empathy when she can imagine others having the same feelings.
Learning how to teach kids empathy is a crucial step all parents should take. The more aware our kids can be of others, the better our world will be.
It starts with simple actions at home, like creating a happy home so that your child’s basic needs don’t have to compete with thinking of others. Encourage her to imagine herself in other people’s shoes. Talk about how her actions affect others, both good and bad.
In social settings, remind her of the many similarities she might have with other children so she can build common interests. And most importantly, model empathy yourself, both toward her and others around you.
Kids may not be born thinking of others, but we can certainly nurture this important skill even now.
Get more tips:
- 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
- Why Kids Lie and What to Do About It
- How to Handle Children’s Social Conflicts
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