Empathy is one of the few traits that holds human beings together. It’s the ability to understand what another is feeling and to see what they see. When people are empathetic, there is more peace, kindness and understanding.
Some may believe that empathy is inborn trait, rather than something that can be learned. But empathy is something that can not only be taught but can be nurtured and learned at any age.
First, let’s start with examples of what empathy looks like.
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Ways to Teach Empathy to Children
Just like sex, many parents avoid discussing emotions with their children. In fact, some parents believe that children need to “suck it up” or “don’t cry” will encourage their children to repress emotions.
To teach your child emotions, simply point them out often, each day. There’s a whole list of ideas on teaching emotions to children here.
This will help your child to make associations of what type of emotions others are feeling, as well as to speculate reasons they may be feeling that way. To take it a step further, try to explain the definitions of different emotions.
By helping them to be able to express these emotions in words, you will help them to develop more empathy.
Watch TV and Movies Together
When watching a show with your child, it’s important to acknowledge the different feeling and emotions that are being expressed.
If your child is young, you can make comments during the show, such as “Oh wow, that puppy looks really sad. I wonder if it’s because he lost his bone? What do you think.”
This will help engage your child into the emotions of the different characters, instead of just the events going on, on screen.
With older children, you can discuss the emotions after the show. You can try to point out examples when your child may have felt those emotions as well, and what others did, or could have done, to make the situation better.
Even when children seem unreceptive, discussing the emotions and implications of what you saw with your spouse in front of your children can help. It will also give them permission to talk to you about their feelings because you are talking about your feelings.
This is something you can even start with babies! Read with them every single day. You can make it part of your bedtime routine, or as a wind-down activity before nap times.
Even if you just spend 15 minutes reading stories that demonstrate different emotions, you can help your child develop empathy.
Ask your child, how did this story make you feel? Let them describe their emotions. Tell them how it made you feel, and how you think the characters felt.
Volunteer As A Team
Another great way to help your child develop more empathy, is to help those less fortunate. You can go to a local soup kitchen and serve or find things around the house that are in good condition that you don’t need anymore, and donate them.
You can also try volunteering at a local animal shelter. See if they will let you guys work as a team to clean out cages or walk with the animals. This is a great time to have a conversation on why it’s important to care about others.
Try to keep the conversations open, and discuss how not everyone lives the same, and that some people have a lot of struggles to deal with.
Talk about Feelings
This is a big one. Keep an open culture in the house that it’s important to discuss feelings. Whenever any type of event occurs, significant or not, find a way to discuss the feelings that were involved.
Explain to your child your viewpoints about current events around the world. Explain how they make you feel emotionally. Make sure to keep this age appropriate of course, but keep in mind that children are often exposed to more than we realize.
It can be confusing, and having a guide (You) to help them navigate the feelings can help them to understand their emotions, and better cope with them.
Discussing it won’t make it worse but ignoring it will. For example, when the plane crashed into the World Trade Center on September 11, many young children saw the event repeatedly on the news. It’s times like this where it’s crucial to talk them through the process. Let them know that the event has ended even though it’s still being shown on T.V. and that it’s okay to feel sad and even scared.
Be an Example
You can talk until your blue in the face, But your kids are watching you, more than they are listening.
The best way to teach your children to be empathetic, it to be a role model. Let your children see you show empathy for others, and for them.
Show them that it’s ok to cry and be sad when a tragedy strikes. You may be tempted to hide these feelings as not to scare them, or create sadness in them. But don’t.
They need to know that it’s normal to have feelings. That they are not to be tucked away or hidden. So if something sad happens on the news, and you want to cry, feel free to do so, and then explain to your child why.
Don’t hide the good things you do to try to make the world a better place, either. They need to learn to contribute to the world too. By realizing they are but a small piece of the universe actually teaches your child a lot more than making them feel as if they’re the center of the world.
The other way you can teach empathy to children is to speak up for people who can’t even when your children are around and it’s hard.
For example, if you are at the grocery store and someone is being rude to a cashier for being too slow, defend the person by talking to them nicely, and ignoring the mean people.
You can do this anytime you see an opportunity. As long as you’re not putting yourselves in any danger, speaking up for people who can’t is always a good thing.
By modeling this behavior you are showing your child how to show empathy and compassion. You are teaching them to care about other people’s feelings.
You are also showing them that you care about their feelings and teach them to care about your feelings. When children receive empathy they’re a lot more likely to be empathic toward others.