Empathy is a characteristic that we admire in others, but rarely do we think about how it forms in children. Empathy is extremely complex, and it’s difficult to determine exactly when a person becomes empathetic in his/her life. Further complicating the matter is the fact that even adults have differing degrees of empathy, and some people are better at understanding and relating to people’s feelings than others.
One generally accepted fact is that empathy is a trait that should be encouraged, and teaching it to your children is an important responsibility for parents. Encouraging empathy in children helps them adapt to social situations, which is especially important in school settings. Check out our tips to help your child become more empathetic as he or she grows older.
When children’s emotional needs are met at home, they are more likely to show empathy for their peers. As a parent, you should remind your child that you will always be there when he or she needs emotional support. Offer constructive feedback when your child is feeling down, so he or she knows they can always depend on you for helpful advice when something goes wrong. This will teach your child to bounce back from distress quickly, which is essential if they want to provide emotional support to anyone else. When you help to problem solve in an empathetic way, your children will feel safer in any situation, including those where others need support.
Be a Role Model
Parents that show empathy for others on a daily basis are more likely to have children who act the same way. Whenever you notice an opportunity to show empathy to someone else, and your children are around, take advantage of the opportunity for an important life lesson. After you show empathetic behavior toward someone else, talk to your child about why it’s important to act that way. A good situation to demonstrate empathy is noticing someone who looks lost, and offering directions so he or she can get where they need to go. Children are likely to remember that act of kindness and incorporate it into their own behavior.
Remind Children of Commonalities
Research indicates that children are better able to empathize with others when they feel like they share something in common. This sense of familiarity helps children see themselves in another person’s shoes, so it serves as a helpful stepping-stone in teaching empathy towards everyone. If you’re watching the news and there is a story about people who are suffering, emphasize the things your child has in common with those people. Maybe they live in the same area, have the same hair color, or went to the same school — whatever you decide to point out, make it clear that the way other people feel matters.
Seeing things from another perspective might seem easy to you, but for a child it is a completely new concept. Books, movies, and TV shows provide an opportunity to talk your child about how fictional characters would experience the world if they were real. When you’re watching a program or reading a book, ask your child what he or she thinks characters are thinking and feeling in specific situations. Follow up by asking why he or she thinks that: is it the character’s words, expressions, actions, or something else? Share what you think the characters are experiencing and why you think that to compare your observations. You might be surprised with your children’s empathetic progress over time as you try this activity.
If your child is struggling to show signs of empathy, it’s important to be patient. Some children take a while to understand the importance of empathy, but nearly all children grasp the concept at some point between the ages of five and seven. Stay persistent when teaching empathy, because one lapse in your own behavior could set a bad example for your kids. When your children understand how other people experience emotions, it’s typically easier for them to make friends and get along with others on a daily basis. Instill these values early, and your children are sure to be better off in the long run.