Empathy is an often misunderstood broad term that people throw out in emotional situations. It is easy to say, “Take a walk in someone’s shoes before judging them,” and quite another to do it. When you consider that empathy is actually three different skills, the challenge of teaching our children to care for others might seem a bit daunting.
Children need to be able to:
- Feel what someone else is feeling.
- Imagine what it is like to be in another person’s position
- Want to help
Being able to feel another’s emotions can be natural and happen at a young age. Still, it is essential to understand that negative emotions are painful, and when we feel them, there is an urge to back away from the negative feeling. In order to care for others, children need to recognize that the person is hurt and understand that the negative emotion is normal and that they can do something to help them feel better.
Some ways to help children with this are:
- Identify emotions as they are happening without judgment.
- “I see you are sad because we aren’t having dessert.”
- Acknowledge how they want to express that emotion.
- “It is ok to show your sadness by pouting or crying.”
- Talk about how emotion is temporary.
- “Now it is time to read a story together; how do you feel now?”
Once children can be confident in their emotions, both positive and negative, it is easier for them to acknowledge and feel others’ emotions.
Imagination is a big part of every child’s life. Their playtime is how they process the world around them! We, as parents, can help teach empathy by practicing while we play with them.
Each age is going to understand life a little differently. You might find this chart helpful for specific activities for your child.
Reading stories is a great way to imagine situations and imagine what it is like to be in another’s position. You can ask your child how it must feel to be in the main character’s situation and what they would do in their place. You can ask what the other characters should do to help the main character too.
To care for others, we need to feel a desire to help them. This desire to help often comes from the example they are given. It is subtle and perceived not only from their parents and teachers but also in the media and world. It is so important to live the example of helping others in what we do.
Ways we can include our children in how we care for others:
- Collect unused items and clothing from around the house to donate to local shelters
- Do a house fundraiser where each member saves money in a special place for a period of time and contributes to the charity chosen together. (We have a fun Piggy Bank for this one!)
- Talk about what is going on in the world and be open. Do not shy away from complex topics and talk about what you can do as a family to help.
Teaching empathy is not easy. It involves checking our actions and being careful with our words. That said, it may be one of the most important things we can do for our children. Studies have shown that adults and children who practice empathy are more confident and happier. If we can all improve our abilities to feel what others are feeling, understand different experiences than our own, and then take action to care for others around us, the world will be a better place for our children and their children.
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