How to teach a child empathy
Generation Z faces new challenges when it comes to cultivating empathy – most interactions take place over the internet rather than face to face. However, the good news is; there are some simple ways to help kids increase their empathy and in turn raise more humanistic children in our increasingly complex and hyper-connected world.
I teach empathy. That might sound foreign or strange to those who think empathy is solely innate, or a fixed trait. Although some people are intrinsically more empathic than others; empathy can in fact be altered, increased and taught. I like to think of empathy as a muscle, and the more you are able to work that muscle out, the more empathic you are able to become. I strongly encourage parents to see the importance in raising an empathic child, the kind of child who understands and helps others, one that will stand up for those who are distressed or are being bullied.
In a world of smart phones, selfies, Instagram likes and online social media, technology has connected us in some ways, but also disconnected us in so many other important ways. Fortunately, via technology, we are more easily connected to the globe and to the people on it. We are more exposed to different cultures, desires and ways of life, and so it is significant to raise open-minded, kind, humanistic children. Teaching our kids empathy is also so much more important than ever before, as sadly they will lack some of the same opportunities for face-to-face human connection and interaction that we had, and more so, that our parents and grandparents once had.
Empathy cannot be looked at as one single word signifying one single emotional process, instead we must look at empathy as three distinct and sometimes overlapping processes:
- Emotional Sharing, which occurs when we ourselves feel distress or happiness when we witness others feeling distress or happiness.
- Empathic Concern, which is described as a motivation to care for or help individuals who are in vulnerable situations or in distress.
- Perspective–taking: where one is able to “put themselves in someone else’s shoes” or in the mind of another and actually imagine what that person is feeling or thinking.
We can actually learn a lot about being human from our own little humans… Young children often already show an innately high level of Emotional Sharing (think about how your infant laughs when you laugh). Some children have the ability to show Empathic Concern at a very young age, however, both these processes and especially, Perspective-taking will require us to help them practice and grow into their full empathic ability.
So, how do we do this? Parents often tell me that they feel teaching emotional and cognitive traits to their kids such as empathy to be quite a big undertaking… As a very new mother, I get it… However, in all honesty, it’s not as daunting as it seems; kids are often better at working this muscle than we are.
5 Ways to Increase Your Child’s Empathic Ability
- Labeling Emotions: Empathy has both an Emotional & Cognitive component and so helping your child to understand and label emotions in everyday life is key. Being able to label your own feelings out loud to your child and in turn help them label theirs as they come up throughout the day is very beneficial and also a huge leap towards raising a mindful, self-aware child. It is important to note that we often tend to gloss over the good emotions that happen throughout the day and highlight the negative ones. So, making an extra effort to give more attention to when you feel good and label that for your child is a plus! When your child cries because they got hurt, help them label that feeling or if they just saw something funny and are laughing help them label that out loud as well.
- Random/Not So Random Acts of Kindness: Modeling behavior is one of the most powerful ways to help children develop skills. It is important to show our kids that we care for others and when we do, to make them a part of it. If your kids see you help others and show kindness to others they are much more likely to do the same.
- Create An Open Space: In order for our children to be open to caring for others they need to feel secure and safe to be themselves and to share their experiences. If they are treated with openness and kindness by you, they are in turn going to be able to give and share. The love and sincerity you shower your child with not only is imperative for their personal development, but it is also a great way to help grow their empathic ability as well. It’s sort of like the gift that keeps giving…
- Reading Books: Parents love reading books to and with their children, from infancy into childhood… this is a perfect opportunity to stop and discuss a specific character from the book, ask your child what I refer to as “Empathy Leading Questions” “What do you think the character is feeling”? “Can you think of a time you felt the same way”?
- Make a Face: This one might be my favorite exercise. Research shows that if you can imagine by utilizing your senses and or facial expressions to understand how someone else is feeling, you are able to increase your empathic ability incrementally. Next time your child and you discuss how their friend fell and skinned their knee on the playground and you help your child label that she must have felt sad and in pain, ask your child to make a sad or “in-pain” face, this helps them connect further to the emotions of others.
Copyright Dr. Deepika Chopra 2017