For some, noticing and resonating with how others are feeling is a natural ability, but it’s not necessarily inherent for everyone. Empathy is the capacity to recognize and understand someone else’s experience within their frame of reference. According to Psychology Today, our capacity for empathy is determined by many factors, including environment, temperament, context and environment.
Empathy is vital for the development of other human abilities like compassion and connection. It’s also a must for a world that can live in harmony with the awareness that we are all intricately and intimately connected. So how can we teach our children to have empathy and in turn have better relationships and a more vibrant life?
1 ~ Begin With Emotions
Having empathy for someone is different than sympathy. When we feel bad for someone but can’t relate to their experience, the pity we experience is a form of sympathy. When you can understand how the other person is feeling because you’ve experienced it yourself, or you’re able to put yourself in their shoes, this creates empathy.
Allowing a child to have their emotional experience without suppressing it is important. When children understand what their emotions mean, and how they feel in their body when the emotion is happening, they are then better able to understand how someone else feels when they experience it.
Being able to recognize the emotional experience of another by seeing their facial cues is another way to show empathy. If a child isn’t picking up on facial cues, you can use flash cards to talk about what certain facial gestures mean and how the child would like to be supported if they were feeling the same way.
It’s also important for parents to model for their children when they are having an emotional experience. When kids see that their parent also has emotions and ups and downs it helps them to recognize that everyone has feelings and expresses them for different reasons.
When a parent can reflect for a child that they understand how the child is feeling (“I understand you’re feeling sad because you can’t play with your friend today”), they show an example of empathy. It takes practice and maturity, but children can learn from their parents example what they are feeling and how to recognize those emotions in others.
2 ~ Practice
Once a child is learning about their emotions, a parent can then guide them toward make a practice of using empathy in a regular way:
- Practice listening to others without interrupting.
- Encourage them to be willing to understand where others are coming from, even if they don’t agree with them.
- Let them imagine putting themselves in another person’s shoes.
- Teach them to ask questions of others and show interest in people besides themselves.
3 ~ Model through Personal Experience
Another great way to teach the idea of empathy with a child is to talk to them about times when they’ve felt upset and needed help from others.
Talk to them about why there were upset and how that felt for them emotionally. What emotion, or emotions, were they specifically experiencing? Then, you can talk to them about what they think would have helped them in that situation. Would a hug feel supportive? Would they prefer some time alone to calm down?
Modeling for kids the ability to express what they need helps them to recognize the needs of others and also how to ask others what they need.
4 ~ Social Media Mindfulness
It’s important to be mindful of habits on social media as well as how much time they spend on devices. In-person, face-to-face, is where empathy is learned and formed, so in-person connection is of vital importance. Make sure there is a healthy balance of offline time for kids of all ages.
Talk to kids about social media etiquette as well. When children recognize that their behavior online has a lasting effect, it can help them be more mindful of what they say, what they post and how they interact with others in the virtual realm.
Empathy can be practiced on social media and help kids to be fully aware of the power of words and images.
5 ~ Acts of Service
Charity can make a big impression on children. Find time to be of service by volunteering, sharing, and giving back to your community.
Let your children see how they can help those in need and have the feel-good experience of helping others. Yes, they might complain at first, but they do see the benefits and feel the pride when they make a difference in the lives of others.
Get to know your neighbors by offering to help out or simply visiting. Basic human connection has gone by the wayside in our busy world. Make time with your kids to get to know who lives nearby and create a relationship with them, even if it’s simply knowing their names so you can say hello.
6 ~ Travel
If you are able, travel. Help your kids get to know people completely different than they’ve ever known. If you can’t leave the country, you can probably find people who are different without going far.
Those of other faiths, from other countries, or who speak a different language are probably in your town or a city nearby. Go to a different church, shop at a different grocery store, find your way to places you’ve never been and show your kids that there are all sorts of people in the world.
When we find the commonalities that we share with others, this creates empathy far beyond our inner circle of those we love.
Why We Need Empathy
Without empathy, it’s possible to dehumanize those who are different than us and not realize that they are having similar experiences. Things that are happening to others can feel distant and not seem to have any effect on our world.
Empathy helps us not blame victims. If kids think that the rest of the world is just like theirs, they may think that the situation someone finds themselves in is their own fault. Kids with empathy can recognize that life isn’t necessarily easy or fair for everyone and have compassion for the situations of others.
Lack of empathy is harmful. In our world of increasing narcissism, we need children who have developed a healthy sense of empathy. It can be learned, practiced, and shared. Eventually, empathy for others becomes second nature and empathetic children can grow up to be caring, connected, compassionate adults.
Bloom Post is a freelance writer, ceremonialist, teacher, and author of the books Shaman’s Toolbox: Practical Tools for Powerful Transformation and Plant Spirit Totems. For more information: www.BloomPost.com