The Importance of Raising an Empathetic Child (And 7 Ways to Help You Do It)
Empathy is talked about a lot, but not often with a depth of understanding. Individualism is rampant today, and supported through media and culture, particularly in the Western world. In this environment, developing the skills to deeply consider the feelings of others is powerful, particularly for those of us raising children. Empathy is a fundamental life skill, and lays at the core of cooperation, contribution, a sense of community, and a really embodied understanding of our connection to others. Cultivating empathy plants the seeds for a kinder, more compassionate world. There are a number of ways to make sure you are nurturing empathetic qualities in your children, and, inevitably, in yourself. Here are 7 to get you started.
1- Talk Feelings
Learning nuanced language for feelings is not something that develops automatically. Having narrow language for verbalizing emotions actually leads to children to develop into adults who are unable to fully appreciate, express, and be comfortable in their full range of feelings, or the feelings of others.
Helping your kids learn vocabulary to talk about their feelings makes them emotionally literate. You can do this in a number of ways. First, you can tell them how you perceive their feelings ‘you seem sad’, ‘you look happy’, ‘it feels like you’re frustrated’. You can also express to them how you are feeling, face-to-face, so they can see how your emotion matches up to the word. You can also avoid ‘masking’ feelings, so they hear you say happy but feel your sadness, because this can teach them some feelings are less acceptable than others.
Another way to show them it is normal and acceptable to have a range of emotions is to not ‘punish’ anger, frustration, sadness etc. by responding to them negatively. This isn’t the same as permitting destructive behavior, but encouraging them to talk to you about those feelings and helping them find the words (more on that in the next point). In this way, you model empathy to them through your behavior toward them.
2- Teach Emotional Coping
Helping your kids find language for emotions and learning to accept a full range of emotions in themselves and others, is one foundation toward learning emotional regulation. It is easier to regulate your emotions when recognize them for what they are. Often, when expressing empathy to others is difficult or blocked, it is because the ability to care is overwhelmed by another feeling, such as anger, jealousy or shame. Helping your kid work through and manage these feelings begins to remove them as roadblocks.
Other ways to facilitate self-regulation is actually physical stress reduction, and a calming of the nervous system to reduce emotional overwhelm. Teaching your child how to do slow deep breathing when they feel this coming on is a lifelong tool which helps them from being trapped in their feelings, and to create a pause before reacting to others. You can do this through repeated reminders and practicing it together.
3- Model Kindness
Kids copy. So empathy has to be modeled. Be generous with daily praise of good character toward self and others, not just of achievements. It shows where value is placed and how to get positive feedback. Modeling empathy to your kids also means cueing into and respecting their physical and emotional needs, individual personalities, and unique interests through words and actions
Also, be consistent in your empathetic behavior to not only your child and immediate family and friends, but strangers you are seen interacting with on a daily basis such as grocery clerks, service staff etc. If you behave in a way that doesn’t model this, own it. Explain it. Say ‘daddy said this or did that’, ‘it wasn’t very kind and I will need to do better next time’. That way you are able to show that mistakes happen, because we aren’t perfect, but admitting them and being intentional for next time is part of the process. The same principle applies for resolving conflicts and showing how we can help each other be understood, and how different outcomes result from different reactions.
4-Draw Caring Attention to Others
We can cultivate empathy in how we draw attention to ways to care for others. This is the explicitly interpersonal part of the first point, ‘Talk Feelings’. ‘Don’t you think George looks sad? How do you think we might cheer him up?’, or ‘What do you think Mommy is feeling right now?. Helping them recognize facial expressions, tone of voice and other emotional cues is an important part of emotional intelligence and tuning into others.
If something good or bad or otherwise has happened to a person, we can ask our child, ‘how do you think that makes her feel?’, and talk it through. This whole process helps in creating a link between identifying the feelings someone has, with what needs might correlate, and how we might contribute to those needs.
5- Explore Perspectives
Reading books with your child is a particularly powerful way to encourage them to see from other viewpoints. Not only is it a rich activity to share together, but a way to nourish the imagination and broad thought processes that can make empathy more accessible. The same might apply in active viewing and dialogue around films and TV shows they enjoy. These mediums offer novel ways for dropping deeply into another person’s subjectivity and perspective, which allows them to develop empathy for those who have very different lives and experiences. Additionally, these are great ways to point out incidents of unkindness and their impact and talk about alternative outcomes.
6- Keep Daily Track of Kinds Acts
Studies have shown kids that intentionally go out each day planning to do a certain number of kind acts, have a notable increase in feelings of happiness. Make family acts of kindness a regular thing, from ways of helping each other, our neighbors and friends, to broader acts of regular volunteering and community service.
Also, asking, ‘what’s something nice someone did for you today?’, or ‘What’s something kind you did for a friend?’, or ‘How do you think your sister is going to feel when she sees what you drew for her?’ are all powerful ways to a) underline the impact of their behavior, b) show that talking about the day isn’t all about how they feel but about others too, c) help them internalize the power of empathy and themselves as a ‘helper’. It is also a beautiful way to praise and highlight their altruistic and kind-hearted qualities and show they are valued.
7- Expand Your Child’s Scope of Care
Expanding your child’s scope of care from what seems immediately tangible and visible to them, in family, friends, community, etc. is incredibly important. We tend to want to shelter our children from the big bad things in the world, and obviously, to a certain extent, there are details we still should. However, the fact that the world can be a tragic or scary place is very visible to them, in school, on the news, in so many messages throughout the day. It can’t be avoided.
Talking to kids about social and environmental global issues opens up their empathetic thinking. We show them that these things matter, we show them the small ways they can give care to them, and we engage in continual age appropriate dialogue about them together. This sets the foundation for a ‘We’ not ‘Me’ mentality, and broadens the scope of their capacity for compassion and thoughtfulness.