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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.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.com
  • Great tips and suggestions, thank you.

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  • Showing the kids how to be empathetic is the major thing, also showing kids how to care for and help others

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  • I think that role modelling empathy is key. My son has Aspergers/high functioning autism, a condition that is known for its apparent lack of empathy. Surprisingly, my son has it in spades. It’s one of the things that I’ve always loved about his behaviour and I guess something that kept me from thinking he had autism. I believe he has learned it, observed it from my husband and I.

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  • This is a great article. I agree that empathy is so important and that it is something we can help our kids develop.

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  • Great tips ! Think modelling is one of the most important. We have often made and written cards together and assemble a wee gift basket / gift.

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  • I always found that the old adage – monkey see, monkey do fits this problem.
    If your children see that you are empathic then they are liable to be also, they really do imitate a lot of what their parents do.
    But the tips given are great.

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  • You know, I tend to think we over think a lot of things nowadays. But I can see how some things can be overlooked, some should just be second nature.

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  • Great ideas.. Empathy isn’t easily taught as such.. But it’s great to know ways of how to encourage it.

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  • If you see a child stub there toe and cry,if you are with your child remind them how it felt and what you did to make it feel better! Memories of what we have experienced give us the ability to feel for others in similar situation. To be given reassurance and support even a kiss on injury can help……. I when young and years ago had a horrid uncle who would laugh if I got hurt and cried, long time ago but still remember how I felt inside..

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  • Great article! Positive parent role models are so important.

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  • Thanks for all the tips, this is a topic I struggle with approaching, very practical.

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  • Like the comment of keeping your own feelings in check when showing empathy. I get so emotional with other people feelings.

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  • Thank you, there are some great and practical tips in this article.

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  • Beautifully written. Thank you for sharing, so many adults have not learned the lessons of empathy, it is a learned skill and needs to be taught to children early.

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  • Our 4 1/2 year old is just starting to really grasp the idea of empathy. He asks a lot of questions when certain situations come up. Nice article just to refresh the strategies and ideas

    Reply

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