Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of someone else.
Empathy is often a complex skill (yes, it’s a skill and it’s not always easy). There are several factors that are necessary to be able to feel and show empathy.
To be truly empathetic we need to have some self awareness (distance our own feelings from other people’s feelings), take on other people’s perspectives and control our own emotional responses.
Many children struggle to naturally do these things, so following are some strategies to help them fine tune this skill:
- Use mind-minded parenting. This basically means encouraging your child to discuss their thoughts and feelings and treating them with respect as an individual (and encouraging them to do the same to you)
- Address children’s needs then teach them how to bounce back (resilience). There are many strategies for developing resilience and different ones will work more effectively for different children.
- Model empathetic behaviour. Talk about what is happening with other people or events in the world. For example, if you hear sad news about someone you know, express that you feel sad for them and that they must feel very upset and suggest writing them a letter or cooking something for them.
- Encourage your child to question what they have in common with others. Also encourage support for differences among people. Help them explore different perspectives (using books or real-life situations).
- Discuss moral disengagement. Speak about following instincts when they know someone else is not making good choices and encourage them not to follow others destructive behaviour. If they struggle with following instincts, discuss the values you have helped them with (i.e. being gentle with animals, using manners etc) and discuss ways they can choose not to engage with others displaying unhelpful behaviours.
- ‘Right now’ empathy gap. When we are experiencing something right now, such as extreme hunger, we are able to understand how hard it is to cope with and we can empathise with others in the same scenario. However, when this scenario is resolved (we ate, so we are no longer hungry), it becomes easy to forget how others feel. It’s important to remind children of previous experiences they have had and how they felt so they can understand how others might feel. Give them opportunities to develop solutions if this is possible.
- Inspire positivity. You can raise your oxytocin (a hormone which acts as a neurotransmitter in the brain) levels through happy social activities, hugging someone you care about and having fun.
Do you have any examples of how you have helped your child develop empathy? Please share your comments below.