Teaching Children Empathy

In today’s society, one thing I see that children (and adults) are lacking is the quality of empathy.  It brought me to ask myself these questions….what makes one child more empathetic than another? If a child falls down and hurts themselves what makes another child run over to check on them but makes another child laugh at the situation?  Are children born with a natural sense of empathy or can it be taught? If it can be taught, then how early should we start teaching our children empathy and how?

In researching the subject, I found proven tips to share with you for teaching your child the quality of being empathetic as empathy is not something that one is naturally born to possess or display.  The Merriam-Webster’s definition of empathy is “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another.”

Provide children with the support they need to develop strong self-regulation skills.

Many times, when children start to display negative feelings or behave in a challenging way, we want to be quick to correct the behavior but do not acknowledge the feelings behind the behavior. We should talk to children about the causes and effects of emotions and how to self-regulate their emotions.  For example, we should try to explain to children that it is okay to feel sad but it’s not okay to lash out at others, and at the same time provide another way for them to express their sadness.  Children benefit from having their feelings acknowledged rather than dismissed. It is never too early to start teaching ways to handle frustration to your toddler. Teaching empathy starts with parents or caregivers showing empathy towards their children.

Seize everyday opportunities to model and induce sympathetic feelings for other people.

Find every opportunity to talk to your child about how people may feel.  If you observe in either real life, television, or in books someone in distress, take the time to have a conversation about feelings and emotions.  Even brief conversations have lasting effects.

Help children discover what they have in common with other people

One of the best ways to encourage empathy is to make children conscious of what they have in common with others. Another way is to have your children meet people from different backgrounds and learn about life in places other than what they experience at home.  In addition, remember that children learn way more from what we actually do and the example that we set for them verses what we say or tell them to do.  Research indicates that the biggest failure to empathize with members of other groups is stemmed by having little or no contact with people who are not like you. Your child should be in a school that fosters multiculturalism and is an inclusive, warm, culturally diverse environment.

Foster empathy through literature and role-playing

It is hard to share emotions or feel for them when encountering someone in pain or distress. Our own emotions may affect or distract us from empathizing with other people. Role playing can be effective for children to learn how to react to someone who is excited, happy, sad, hurt, disappointed, etc. When we read to our children take the time to interject how the story made us feel and ask your child how they felt about the characters in the story.  Are we happy that the character was victorious, did we sympathize with the character to how they had to overcome an obstacle?  These are important conversations to have with our children.  It does not just stop with a feeling of empathy. That is simply not enough.  We need to take it a step further…taking the time to find out what will make the person feel better and then put action behind our feelings is what we need to strive for.

Show children how to “make a face” while they try to imagine how someone feels

Knowing the look of emotions can help a child become more empathetic.  Ask your child to make a sad face in the mirror.  Have them recognize that when they see a family member, classmate, or friend make that face that they are probably feeling sad.  Ask your child, how can we help our friend when they are feeling sad. This will assist in guiding your child through emotions.

Help your child not to be pressured by social groups

Children, just like adults, can with the right rationalizations disengage their moral responses.  They can start to think less of others through the pressuring of social groups.  Teach children that all people deserve our empathy, respect, and compassion, no matter what “group” they belong to.

Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we all practiced empathy?  If we start teaching our children to be empathetic when they are young, this will go a long way on how they treat others as they grow up.

Information obtained from NAEYC Families website, Merriam Webster Dictionary, and Parent Science website.