Empathy and Why We Need To Teach It To Our Children

Empathy involves the ability to understand someone else’s perspective and understand how they feel about it. Empathy is essential in interpersonal relations, has been linked to moral behaviour and in general, humans are kinder when they can understand one another’s perspectives and emotions. Positive strengths in this skill have also been linked to emotional intelligence.

In a child, the skill of empathy advances as their cognitive structures develop. Between the ages of two and four years children start to become aware of their own emotions and feelings. Between five and seven years children start developing compassion and reading emotional cues from others. These stages of development are the foundations that help develop empathy in children. For some, the ability to feel empathy comes naturally. Interestingly, it is not an innate deposition that unfolds equally in all children.

Fortunately, parents can have a considerable influence to help develop empathy in children. If you encourage empathy, children can become more empathic to others. This is particularly important for children on the spectrum, children who lack ‘theory of the mind’ and for children who just naturally have a lower empathetic capacity than others.

happy child

Why does empathy matter?

  • What does empathy look like? Decety and Cowell (2014) believe the word empathy has become a broad term for three distinct processes;
  • Emotional sharing: which occurs when people experience unpleasant feelings because they saw or heard distress in another person.
  • Empathic concern: which is a person’s motive or desire to care for others who are vulnerable or experiencing distress.

Perspective-taking: which is the ability to consciously put yourself in another person’s situation and imagine what they could be thinking or feeling.  All of which can be explored and encouraged through a child’s early years.

1. Empathise with your child and show empathy towards others
This is all about role modelling empathy and being mindful of your own responses to your child’s emotions. The easiest way to do this is to be reflective of the emotions your child displays and validate how they are feeling.

2. Teach children to effectively manage their emotions and self-regulate
Expressing empathy is not always easy for children, particularly if they themselves are experiencing negative emotions or feelings that are overwhelming. One of the initial steps to developing empathy towards others is to be able to manage your own emotions effectively.

3. Use every day opportunities to address perspective taking
Use moments from everyday life to encourage caring and compassionate thoughts through ‘perspective taking.’ Talk openly about how another may feel when you identify situations that elicit an empathetic response in books, movies, at the park or in your home.

4. Help children discover what they have in common with others
Encourage inclusion, diversity and warmth by helping your child discover what they share in common with people of all different perspectives.

5. Encourage kindness, thoughtfulness and compassion for all living creatures
Prioritise these traits across all situations and to all living things.

6. Help children develop the ability to read emotional cues
Empathy requires children to identify how others feel, not only based on their own emotional insight but also on the other person’s emotional cues – not every person reacts and feels the same in every situation.

7. Develop cognitive awareness of empathy using literature
While you are reading you can engage in empathy building by: discussing the character’s feelings and emotions, pointing out the facial expressions or body language of characters, asking your child how they would feel if it were them.

8. Engage in emotional awareness games and play

9. Encourage younger children to develop empathic concern during imaginary play 
By engaging in play with your child you can role model and encourage empathetic concern.

10. Encourage and praise emotional sharing
Your child needs to be reassured that it is okay for them to experience both negative and positive emotions. They should also feel safe to express all emotions to you. You can encourage this by asking your child how they felt when they experienced a situation or event that might have produced a particularly strong empathetic response.

When they do exhibit empathy, reinforce the behaviour by praising them for showing compassion. If your child shares an emotion with you, even an unpleasant one, make sure to tell them it is wonderful that they are sharing their emotions, and that it demonstrates how kind and caring they are.

Source: Product Childhood101 (2019, April 16). Develop Empathy Retrieved from https://childhood101.com/develop-empathy/