“Empathy is when you’re able to understand and care about how someone else is feeling.”
~Mark Ruffalo, Sesame Street
Kids are not born understanding empathy, and while empathy is not a fixed trait, it can be fostered. The ability to be empathic towards others is a learned trait that must be instilled in children as they grow.
Many of the current events today including the wildfires out west and the hurricane and flooding in the east are now providing excellent teachable moments to help with gaining empathy.
Studies have shown that empathy is an essential life skill. Emotional intelligence or emotional quotient (E.Q.), defined as being able to understand one’s own feelings and the feelings of others, is thought to be more important for success in life than I.Q., or intelligence quotient.
Research has shown that empathy is essential to building healthy and happy relationships with family and friends and to doing well at work (and for kids, in school). It makes sense. After all, if you had a choice between working with someone who is kind, considerate, and respectful or someone who has no regard for your thoughts or feelings, who would you choose?
An overriding concept for parents is to make caring for others a priority and set high ethical expectations.
If children are to value others’ perspectives and show compassion for them, it’s very important that they hear from their parents that caring about others is a top priority, and that it is just as important as their own happiness. Here are some other ways parents can teach empathy to their children
Show empathy to your child when she’s upsetBeing sensitive to how your child is feeling can help her understand how others might respond when she shows empathy to them. When children experience this, they relate to how it might make someone else feel
Raise awareness of nonverbal cues
Kids often struggle with picking up on social cues such as downcast eyes and slumped posture. They may need help recognizing the messages from different types of body language, facial expressions, and tones of voice. A good way to do this is to watch a TV program on mute to see if they can “read” the feelings or emotions of the actors
Role-play different scenarios
Acting out scenarios such as not being invited to a birthday party, or having someone make fun of a friend, can make it easier for your child to see another person’s point of view
Be ready to change tactics slightly
If the “How would you feel…” strategy isn’t working, move the spotlight to yourself. You can say something like, “I remember a time when I was waiting in line at a pizza place and it was taking forever. And then someone didn’t see there was a line, and they gave their order before I could!”
With the recent wildfires in the west and the hurricane and flooding in the east, you can use them to your child’s advantage. Discuss the impact these events are having on people, and they will open up a treasure trove of conversations for now and later as well. Future discussions could cover things like disaster planning and emergency preparedness for your family, the bravery of first responders, etc.
Being sensitive to what your child is feeling shows your child what empathy can look like. Showing your child how you feel about others less fortunate is also important. Remember that teaching empathy can be a long process, so be prepared to teach this skill repeatedly and always model empathy yourself.