How to encourage the feelings of empathy in your child.
When my children were between the ages of 18 months and five years old, we spent a lot of time with other children their age as well as their parents. Frequently, I would observe parents forcing, teaching or encouraging their young children to share. Different approaches to helping children understand why and how to share met with different responses from each child.
I started to break down the act of sharing into developmental components and realized empathy and brain development played major roles in sharing. I pieced together that a child needed to understand the if-then connection of sharing (e.g. if I share my toy then Sally will feel happy). This connection takes place in the prefrontal cortex of the brain andbegins developing between the ages of 3-5 years and reaches a developmental peak between the ages of 5-7 years.
Throughout a child’s development, a parent sees instances of empathy emerging: preschoolers who share, school-age children who comfort each other, adolescents who show good sportsmanship and teens who give back to those less fortunate.
Parents play a key role in fostering the development of empathy in their children by helping them learn how to identify, respect and appreciate the feeling of others. Here are a few things parents need to know about empathy and what you can do on the home front to maximize this developmental trait in your children:
What you need to know about empathy:
- develops over time
- is influenced by other areas of development
- can be taught
- needs to be practiced
- is a critical trait for school and social success because of its impact on social-emotional competence.
Empathy is being able to recognize and identify feelings in others. Those who empathize:
- understand what others are feeling
- understand the effects of their actions on others
- show compassion for others
- help those who are hurt
- prevent actions that hurt others
So, what are some ways to help support our kids’ development of empathy? Here are a few important (and relatively easy) ways to nurture this skill.
Focus on feelings. Children need to learn about their own feelings before they can relate to feelings in others.
- Things to try at home:
- Read stories about feelings
- Increase feeling vocabulary
- Have a daily feeling check-in: use a feeling face chart or emoticons
- Encourage older children to reflect upon their feelings in a journal
- Use examples from the news, books your children are reading, TV shows or movies to talk about how people must feel or when people show empathy.
You are your child’s FIRST teacher. Use key questions and phrases when talking with your child.
- Practice empathy yourself. Model empathy by acknowledging their feelings. When you validate your child’s feelings by being empathetic, you teach them how to be empathetic.
- Express your feelings:
- I feel __(sad)__when __(you are hurt)__.
- Can you hear__(joy)__ in my voice?
- What feeling is my face (actions, body) showing?
- Reflect your child’s feeling:
- I see you are feeling _____.
- I understand you may be feeling _____.
- You look like you are feeling _____.
- Highlight the positive by finding a creative way for family members to point out when they witness someone in the family showing empathy:
- Character board
- Empathy jar
- Point out non-verbal cues in others. Teach children different facial expressions and body postures for different feelings.
- Call attention to insensitive behavior and turn non-empathetic moments into a time to teach. Encourage your child to come up with a more empathetic response to the situation.
- Connect your child’s feelings about his personal experiences with others’ experiences:
- If they are rejecting a friend, remind them of how it felt when they (or you) were rejected.
- Point out the good feelings they experience when people do things for them and encourage them to do things for others.
Empathy is a skill that experts from many disciplines have deemed important for personal, relationship and career success. Developing empathy can be a lifelong process, and it’s never too early to start. We shouldn’t expect a child to master this skill, but we should be mindful of every opportunity to model empathy, to discuss feelings and to learn from others’ perspectives.