Now more than ever it’s important that children learn to develop a sense of empathy. We all want our little ones to be kind and compassionate individuals who connect with other children, but is it something that can be taught? Some have the misconception that empathy is an innate trait some are born with and others lack. However, like many personal characteristics, empathy can be encouraged, especially through the example of parents and teachers. If you wish to help your child develop this compassionate trait, there are things that you can do to help your child learn what empathy is and how they can show it to others.
What Is Empathy?The basic definition of empathy is our ability to imagine how another is feeling in a specific situation and then respond in a caring way. However, this may be an oversimplified way to look at this characteristic. Empathy actually involves three distinct processes:
- Emotional Sharing: experiencing distress when we observe feelings of distress in other people
- Empathetic Concern: caring for those who are distressed or vulnerable
- Perspective Taking: putting ourselves in “someone else’s shoes” and imagining how a situation makes them think or feel
Why Is Empathy Important?In the “selfie” culture of today, empathy levels are at an all-time low. Children who lack this characteristic tend to believe that they are the center of the world. But this exaggerated focus on their own needs can actually be harmful to their overall emotional and psychological health. When there is a decreased focus on others, it can lead to such issues as:
- Weak moral reasoning, meaning they can be talked into negative behaviors through persuasion
- And even mental health issues, like depression or anxiety
How to Help Young Children Develop Empathy for OthersAlthough every child is different, there are some things parents can do to help lead their children to become more empathetic toward the feelings of others:
- Model empathy: You are your child’s first source of information. When you are kind and patient in difficult situations, they will observe that behavior and follow your example. However, if you blow it and lose your cool, you can also model apologizing for your wrong behavior.
- Empathize with your child’s feelings: If they are feeling angry or scared or sad, talk through those emotions with them, and help them work through their emotions as opposed to telling them to “get over it.”
- Encourage empathetic behavior: This can be done if you observe another child in need, such as encouraging your child to get ice for another kid’s boo-boo or comfort a friend who is crying.
- Help boost their “feelings vocabulary”: Reading books that discuss emotions or showing cards with different facial expressions and explaining that emotion will help children broaden their understanding of other people’s feelings.
- Be patient: Developing empathy begins when a child is still a baby but continues for years. It’s okay if your preschooler isn’t perfectly empathetic. It is a complex skill that will continue to develop with your encouragement.