The ability to display an empathetic demeanor – that is, feeling, understanding, and sharing each other’s emotions – is a very noble personality trait. Quite frankly, a personality trait that this world needs much more of. Desperately…just take a look around.
The only way that we’re going to effectively promote the ability to empathize, for future generations, is to teach children to do likewise. To accomplish this, we – as mature adults – must be willing to take on the responsibility. Of course, much of this responsibility rests on the shoulders of the most influential people in a child’s life: the parent(s).
Definition of Empathy
1: the imaginative projection of a subjective state into an object so that the object appears to be infused with it
2: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit matter
– Merriam Webster Dictionary
Raising Empathetic Children
But, children are immature (albeit, some more than others). It’s just the nature of being a child, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Taking this into consideration, instilling a value, trait, characteristic, etc., can be a difficult task. Teaching empathy is no different in this respect.
As parents, it is important to understand that empathy is also an essential social skill. A skill that builds relationships, strengthens communities, and simply be more caring and kind people.
There ARE many ways that we can teach our children this valuable social skill.
In fact, here are the ways to teach them to become more empathetic:
1. Don’t suppress the child’s emotions
Parents often attempt to suppress children’s emotions, saying things like “Stop yelling,” “Don’t cry,” “Be a big boy/girl,” etc. This is actually a natural tendency, as parents do not like seeing their children hurt or in pain. However, this can actually stunt a child’s emotional development. More specifically, the child may be less willing to share emotions after being interacted with in such a way.
Instead, just acknowledge the child’s feelings and keep the door of communication open.
2. Emphasize and practice gratitude
The ability to express gratitude is a common trait among happy people. In a study conducted by Dr. Robert Emmons, researcher at the University of California-Davis, expression of gratitude increases happiness levels by about 25 percent.
Parents can teach and encourage gratitude in their children by simply displaying it themselves; or, asking a child to think about the good things in their life. Simply asking a child what their favorite part of the day way can build the foundation for a life of gratitude.
3. Provide opportunities to practice empathy
One great thing about children is they love to be of help to others. It makes them feel good. This is why it is very important at this stage to provide opportunities for them to do just that. Think: donating something (e.g. money, food, time) to people in need.
Behavioral and developmental practitioners state that a child’s desire to help others is innate, and revolves around three main points. First, in the beginning, helping others helps the child get what they want. Second, helping others gets them praise. Finally, the ability to anticipate the needs of others develops; as it does, helping others becomes its own reward.
4. Allow the child to see you vulnerable
Shared experiences among fellow humans is a very powerful thing, and children are no different in this respect. When they witness their parent’s willingness to share their own vulnerabilities, it helps to develop a sense of stability and normalcy within the child.
This display of vulnerability can be as simple as apologizing to a child when you’ve made a mistake.
5. Give names for feelings
The development of emotional intelligence is vital to one’s success later on in life. During childhood, this skill can be developed by naming feelings that the child is having. For example, if the child is having difficulty with homework, share something like: “I know. When I can’t figure something out, I get frustrated too. You may be getting frustrated. Do you want some help?”
All feelings – embarrassment, fear, shame, sadness, joy, jealously, etc., – can be named the same way.
6. Non-judgmentally acknowledge emotions
One prominent child psychologist put it this way: “Acknowledging isn’t condoning our child’s actions; it’s validating the feelings behind them.” In other words, while we may see the behavior as silly, the child is only acting on their emotions. As such, acknowledging emotions evokes a sense of communication, safety, and belonging in the relationship.
Remember, childhood is a developmental phase. It’s perfectly okay to acknowledge emotions (e.g. “I understand your angry/frustrated/hurt because…) since we just don’t any better, really, at that age.
7. Ask about feelings hypothetically
There are many times parents will observe a heightened emotional situation. We’re able to – at least to some degree – process what’s going on and maybe even the reason behind it. Children don’t have that capability.
As such, it can be valuable to simply interact with a child about the situation (“How do you think he/she feels?,” “Why do you think that?”) This teaches children the importance of rationally evaluating and interpreting emotions.
8. Discuss other people’s feelings
Kind of a no-brainer here, right? Children often have difficulty understanding the rationale behind why someone feels the way that they do. Sadly, there are a multitude of adults that have the exact same problem.
Hence, the importance of having dialogue with children about the “why behind the what” when it comes to emotions.
9. Display empathetic behavior towards others
Children learn by what they see and hear…it’s that simple. If parents are caring and empathetic, even to people they don’t know, the child will likely learn to do the same. Conversely, if parents are cold and repelling to people they don’t know (maybe even to do those they do), the child will likely learn that lesson, unfortunately.
10. See the world through the child’s eyes
Children must feel safe when expressing their emotions in order for them to feel loved and welcomed. Parents, understandably so, often praise positive emotions (e.g. joy, laughter) and criticize negative emotions (e.g. crying, screaming). However, this is not always the best way to go about it.
We, too, were children once. We undoubtedly acted impulsively and “irrationally.” But, childhood is a phase of life that we adults often forget about. Try seeing the world through a young child’s eyes instead of your own, as difficult as that can be at times.