Put yourself in someone else’s shoes. As discussed in my recent blog, “The Power of Empathy vs. the Power of Bullies,” empathy is defined as recognizing, understanding, and caring about how someone feels, or being able to put yourself in someone’s shoes. "Treat others the way you want to be treated” is the modified golden rule that conveys empathy. Parents can offer their children loads of opportunities to increase their sensitivity toward others, to understand how a person is feeling, or how it might feel to be in someone else’s situation.
Create awareness of others’ feelings. Whether it is a situation occurring in your family, on television, in a movie or a book, there are endless opportunities to point out or remind children of other people’s feelings. “How do you think she felt?” “What could others have said or done to help her feel better?” “What would you do?” These questions can help focus your child’s attention to other people’s feelings on a regular basis and can result in brainstorming empathetic and caring responses and reactions. (Very young children will need help in identifying what feelings are, prior to answering these questions).
Help kids understand differences. It is not uncommon for a child to automatically feel anxious of uncomfortable when they encounter someone who is different. The uneasiness and lack of understanding of the difference can lead to ridicule, finger-pointing or exclusion. Kids encounter cultural, racial, religious, and socio-economic differences, in addition to knowing people with physical, academic, and behavioral challenges. We can alleviate the anxiety by talking about the differences they notice in others and creating opportunities to clarify misconceptions and provide factual information. Creating or heightening an awareness of the difference definitely contributes to a greater understanding and empathy.
Provide opportunities to help others. The development of empathy can be enhanced by providing opportunities for children to help others. Volunteering at a soup kitchen, doing a favor for an ill or elderly neighbor, donating toys and clothes to charity, and taking canned goods to a local food pantry are acts that help children realize that good deeds can make an incredible difference in the lives of others. These acts of kindness also positively contribute to their self-esteem.
“I understand how you feel.” “You must have been so upset.” “That must have felt terrible!” The most powerful lessons in empathy take place when parents model empathy by conveying an understanding of how a child feels. The first step is encouraging your child to tell you what he or she is feeling. The second step is to communicate to your son or daughter an understanding and concern for his or her feelings or situation with words and facial expressions. Of course, hugs provide a lot of comfort as well. Paraphrasing what your child has expressed communicates that you really understand. Affirming your child’s feelings is a key way to instill empathy. It is similar to kissing your child’s skinned knee to “make it better.”
Although validation of the feelings may not “fix” the problem the child is facing, it is quite consoling and reassuring, which generally helps kids feel better. As parents, we often want to immediately get rid of the pain or discomfort our sons and daughters are experiencing. In many cases, we cannot. However, communicating and showing an understanding of children’s feelings is comforting, can reduce anxiety and worry, and it teaches empathy.
Don’t forget to empathize with positive feelings! Remember that we can empathize with positive feelings as well! “I know you must feel awesome that you did so well on your test.” “You must be excited that you scored the soccer goal to win the game!” It is important to help kids make the connection between positive actions and behavior and good feelings. Conveying empathy at these special times of achievement and accomplishment enhances a child’s self-esteem.
There are countless teachable moments in our daily lives, and simply training your child’s attention to other people’s feelings on a regular basis is a great way to start instilling empathy. Conveying empathy through words and actions is an ongoing process that entails consistent review and reinforcement.
How do you teach empathy to your children?
About the blogger: Judy S. Freedman, a licensed clinical social worker and bullying prevention specialist, is the author of Easing the Teasing – Helping Your Child Cope with Name-Calling, Ridicule, and Verbal Bullying.' She lectures and conducts workshops for parents, educators, and mental health professionals throughout the country. She recently spoke at the National PTA Convention in San Jose, California. Learn more about Judy and her work at www.easingtheteasing.com.