How can I help my kids develop empathy?
It’s a really important question, especially now given everything going on in our worlds.
We are all born with the capacity for empathy, but it must be developed. “For it to be fully realized and utilized, it must be cultivated over time,” says Dr. Catherine Jackson.
What exactly is empathy and why is it so important?
Empathy is a skill that builds social and emotional intelligence competence. Research shows we typically feel more empathy for members of our own groups (family, ethnic, gender, team, etc). It’s easier to relate to and “step into the shoes of” people that are more like us.
You need to practice empathy to:
- Build social connections with all types of people you interact with. Social connections help us better understand what people are thinking and feeling so we can respond appropriately in social situations. Research has shown that having social connections is important for both physical and psychological well-being.
- Regulate your emotions. Emotional regulation helps us manage what we’re feeling even when we’re stressed or triggered. Ideally, the toddler that throws tantrums, will develop into a child who knows how to manage uncomfortable feelings without losing it, and later into an adult that is able to control impulses that are triggered by uncomfortable feelings.
- Promote helping behaviors. Not only are you more likely to engage in helpful behaviors when you feel empathy for other people, but other people are also more likely to help you when they experience empathy.
Does empathy need to be taught directly?
Kids do a lot of learning just by watching and listening to us and other adults around them. However, being intentional and direct with your teaching of important life skills like empathy, doesn’t leave their development to chance.
Empathy is seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another and feeling with the heart of another. Alfred Adler
How can we know how others feel and experience the world?
One of the best ways to understand how others feel and experience the world is through stories. Books and movies are a great source of stories that invite you into the lives of others. But I think conversations with others is one of the most effective ways to learn more about they see and experience things and at the same time build strong emotional connections and relationships built on shared understanding and true empathy. When we hear people’s stories AND accept them as true, we can start to imagine ourselves feeling as they have. BUT we need to remember, while being able to imagine what they’ve experienced is helpful in building empathy, it must not be confused with KNOWING what it’s like to have their experience. For example, I raised two boys. So, based on my observations and conversations with them, I can imagine what it’s like to be a teenage boy, however, I don’t actually KNOW what that is experience is like and how it feels. Be aware of what you THINK YOU KNOW and don’t mistake it for what you actually know.
What does healthy empathy look like?
Having empathy makes you concerned for the wellbeing and happiness of others. It also means, that you may sometimes feel overwhelmed, burned out, or even overstimulated from always thinking about other people’s emotions.
Self-awareness and boundary setting are important skills that help us practice empathy in healthy ways.
How can I help my kiddos develop empathy?
- Show empathy to your child when they’re upset. Be a role model. For example, imagine you’re trying to unload groceries and your child is demanding ice cream. You tell them they can’t have ice cream right now, and they throw a tantrum. Instead of getting angry, you say, “I know you want ice cream right now and you may feel angry that I won’t let you have any. We will have ice cream as soon as we finish our dinner. Let’s draw a picture of you eating ice cream and write time the time it will be when we get to eat it.
- Discuss alternative strategies for managing emotions. When your child is calm, you can say, “You did a good job waiting until after dinner to eat your ice cream. What else could you have said or done when we got home with the groceries to let me know you wanted ice cream and help me figure out how we could make that happen for you?”
- Build awareness of nonverbal cues. Help kids notice their own and others’ body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice. When they notice these nonverbal cues, talk about how you might label the emotions being expressed. Looking at pictures, book illustrations, and shows or movies with the sound off to allow your child identify and label the emotions being expressed can help them practice recognizing and identifying signs of different emotions.
- Play games. Learning empathy can be fun. You can make a game out of identifying and discussing emotions being expressed in the stories you read or the movies you watch with them. Connection Zoo® is a great way to build these skills and other social and emotional skills. You can also role play different scenarios.
- Practice empathetic listening. Listening is a skill that most of us don’t do well. This Connection Zoo® Empathetic Listening activity helps you practice this valuable life skill.
Feel Well, Be Well, Do Well and Practice Empathy Often!