Empathy. What does it look like and why is it so important to teach our kids?
Empathy is defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. For a young child, it requires them to recognize different emotions and be able to understand the differences between the emotions. It also requires a child to know what that emotion feels like themselves and then understand when someone else is feeling that same way. What a complex skill!
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I will also add that empathy is not only a way of thinking, but a behaviour. In order for kids to be seen as empathetic by others, they need to learn to show that they understand and share another’s feelings.
Why is it so important to teach our kids this skill? From my own teaching experience, I have seen that the kids who are more empathetic tend to be more confident and less aggressive (translation: not likely to be bullies!). Empathetic kids are also more popular and generally appear happier. If those aren’t inducements to work on this with your child, I don’t know what are!
In this age of random gun shootings and an increased awareness of the effects of bullying, can we afford to NOT teach our children this ability? As an elementary school teacher, I have seen countless acts of bullying. When my son, Onetime, was born, I swore that I would do everything I could to teach him to be one of those kids who did the right thing.
I read up a LOT on this topic and will summarize 10 of the things that I found and started doing, to help teach my son to be empathetic – and emotionally healthy.
Some of these are strategies I have used since Onetime was born. Others began when he learned to speak. But, I don’t think it’s ever too late to start teaching your child these skills. We all do what we can, with the knowledge we have at the time after all, don’t we?
1. Make It OKAY for Your Child to Express ALL Emotions (Especially the negative ones!)
This was probably the toughest one for me to learn to do and the most important one. It can be especially tough for parents who have difficulty expressing their own negative feelings (that would be me), or those whose parents minimized their feelings as a child, or even outright did not allow them to be expressed.
The thing is…if your child is not allowed to express negative emotions in a healthy way, then he/she will come to learn that they must mistrust or even hide these feelings at all costs. Can you see the danger in that way of thinking?
Eventually, the child will come to think of himself/herself as either being flawed for feeling that way (damaging their self-esteem in the process), or, they will turn the anger outwards and rebel and become stubborn or disobedient. Either way, their mental health will likely be impacted negatively.
Certainly, a child who believes that negative feelings are unacceptable will never be able to understand when someone else is expressing these feelings, nor will they be able to, or want to, act to comfort them – the crux of empathy.
You’ve probably heard the analogy of negative emotions (being sad, afraid, or angry) as being like a liquid that bubbles up from within. If you keep them inside and don’t release them, you are “bottling up” your emotions. If you keep them relatively unexpressed, but in check, they are “simmering.” If you let them out after suppressing them for a while, you “explode” like lava from a volcano!
But what would happen if we kept those emotions flowing out at a steady rate, without blocking them, or letting them build up? Would they ever explode? Almost certainly. Even the most easygoing people lose their cool every now and then. BUT they probably wouldn’t have the same impact as they would if they had been stoppered up for a while.
How then – can we help our kids release these difficult emotions without having a “volcanic” crisis on our hands (think Temper Tantrum)? According to Pam Leo, author of Connection Parenting: Parenting Through Connection Instead of Coercion, Through Love Instead of Fear the secret is to simply acknowledge and accept the feelings – as soon as they appear.
Saying something as simple as, “You seem really upset/frustrated/angry/scared,” can be all a child needs to hear to let that emotion pass. Sometimes an added hug is needed. Or an understanding, “I’m here for you. It’s going to be okay,” or “It’s okay to cry.” (Did you know that tears are our body’s natural way of releasing the stress hormone cortisol from our body?)
When we accept the negative emotions, as a healthy way to release hurts, instead of denying them (“Stop that! That’s enough.”) or minimizing them (Oh, you’re not really upset are you? It’s not a big deal.”), we tell our children that we love them regardless of how they feel.
We also honour their internal experiences. And we are giving them a powerful message that we are confident that they can handle those big, scary feelings and that yes, they will pass.
My father used to tell me, “And this too shall pass,” when I was growing up and was upset, and he was right. Feelings are only temporary – but only IF they are released and accepted.
2. Respond to Your Child’s Physical Hurts with Empathy (Yes – even the little ones!)
Have you ever said, “You’re fine,” when someone hurt themselves? I know I’m guilty of it. Probably a gazillion times as a teacher. What I didn’t realize at the time though, was that this seemingly innocent statement sends the child a really negative message.
To a child, it can be perceived as meaning that either you don’t really care that they are hurt, or that something is wrong with them for being that upset. I don’t want my son to feel either of these ways, so instead, I respond to every physical hurt with empathy.
This is an easy one to practise with your child from a young age, because if your child is anything like mine, there will be lots of opportunities to use it! More importantly, it will translate into your child learning how to respond to others when they are physically hurt, and eventually, when they are emotionally hurt.
Whether it’s your sniffling toddler that has lightly bumped his elbow, or a sobbing preschooler that has blood streaming down her face from a gash in her head, to THEM, both situations HURT.
When you are hurt, the last thing you want someone telling you is to “suck it up” or that it’s “not a big deal.” I know that response only makes me really angry.
It’s easy enough to respond to even the smallest hurts with a gentle, “Oh that looked like it hurt!” or a quick kiss to the injured appendage. Or maybe even a bandaid when there’s not a cut.
The important part is to acknowledge the hurt and accept it.
Today, my son Onetime, prefers a quick kiss and then he’s on his way.
Before I started responding to him with empathy, there used to be tears and long, drawn-out crying sessions. And I was FRUSTRATED. I didn’t know what to say to make it better. Now, with just a few words, he knows that I understand and care, and he can move on – even when it still hurts.
In fact, it wasn’t very long after my husband and I started responding this way to my son, that HE started responding to OUR hurts with a kiss or hug!
“And that’s why we’re doing this!!!” I remember saying to my husband – the day my son first gave him a kiss to make him feel better after he stubbed a broken toe on the coffee table.
3. Begin Identifying Your Child’s Emotions
This one goes along with acknowledging your child’s feelings. Even before your child can speak, you can identify what they appear to be feeling. Don’t worry – as they get older if you’ve got it wrong, they’ll let you know!
- Baby starts crying when a loud truck drives by.
Response: “Wow – that noise really scared you!”
- Toddler throws himself down on the floor in response to you telling her it’s time to leave the playground.
Response: “You look really angry that we have to leave. It can be difficult to go when you’re having so much fun.”
- Preschooler asks repeatedly where Daddy is during the day (personal example).
Response: “You sound like you’re sad and you miss your Dad right now.” His reply: “Um-hum!”
4. Label Your Own Emotions
Again – another way to help our kids learn about how others are feeling is to make it obvious to them how WE feel.
“I am really upset right now that you kicked me!”
“I am so excited we get to spend time together this weekend!”
“It makes me really sad when I think about my pet dog who died.”
5. Point Out the Emotions of Others
This is the same ideas as #3 and #4. Just take advantage anytime your child notices someone else in your vicinity experiencing a strong negative (or positive) feeling. I’ve used this one a few times when we are around other children who are upset.
- Baby starts loudly crying in the play centre we are visiting.
Me: “That baby over there is crying. She sounds really sad. Why do you think she’s upset?“
Onetime’s answer: “Baby wants milk.” Me: “Yes, you could be right! Or maybe she’s tired, or she just wants a hug.”
- We are at the pool and a boy in Onetime’s swim class does not want to get into the water.
Me: “Jack looks scared to get into the water today, doesn’t he?”
Onetime: “Um-hum. Maybe he doesn’t want swim today.” Me: “I think you’re right!“
Story Time is another great time to initiate discussions with your child about emotion and to help them understand how others are feeling. It’s really easy to pause every now and then while reading and ask questions like:
“How do you think that character is feeling right now?“
“How would you feel if that happened to you?”
“Do you think that character feels the same way as you? How can you tell?“
You can always do some “thinking out loud” too. Try saying things like:
“Wow – that character looks really sad. I’ll bet he’s upset that he lost his dog.”
“I think that this girl is really angry. No one likes to be bullied like that.”
7. Model Empathy Through Play
One of the coolest things about watching kids play is that you can see what they are learning from you and their environment. When my son started putting bandaids on his stuffed animals and giving them kisses to help them feel better, I knew that he was truly learning to be empathetic.
Even if your child doesn’t initiate it, you can always add empathy into your play with them. Dolls, stuffed animals, and puppets can “talk” to your child and model empathic responses to him/her and each other.
Often, our kids will learn even more from this kind of play, than from our “real” interactions with them! Somehow, these toys can have more credibility than us!
8. Practise Empathy Yourself (I never said this would be easy…)
We all know the old adage that “Kids will do what you DO and not what you SAY,” right? Well, it’s worth thinking then about what we are role-modelling for our children in our interactions with our spouses, parents, friends, neighbours, strangers, and even pets!
Kids are always listening aren’t they? Even when you don’t think they are. Enough said…
9. “Think” Out Loud to Model Making Positive Attributions of Others’ Behaviour
As with most skills with children, it is important to model the behaviours we would like to see them show. If we want them to empathize with others, we need to help them learn to give others the benefit of the doubt.
For example, the other day I was driving with my son and someone cut ahead of us closely. I could have said, “What the $%&@*!”
Instead I chose to model some empathetic thinking by saying out loud, “Wow! They must really be in a rush. Maybe there’s an emergency at their home.”
One of my favourite parenting experts, Alfie Kohn, author of Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason, has said that you should always attribute the “best possible motive” to a child’s behaviour – until they prove you wrong. In other words, give others the benefit of the doubt for their actions. Eventually, your child will learn this skill too.
10. Help Your Child Make Amends
This was one of the most useful things I learned from Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish’s book, How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk. Even though my husband and I use all the strategies above to help teach our son empathy, he sometimes does things that hurt or bother us, or others, without thinking about the effects of his behaviour.
I TRY to always give my son the benefit of the doubt. “He just poured his drink on the floor because he is experimenting to see how water splashes, or to see how I will react….” Or, “He just bit me in the leg because he’s overtired and frustrated, and doesn’t have the words to express how cranky he’s feeling.”
However, things can’t be left at that.
After acknowledging any negative feelings of my son’s that might be apparent, I tell my son how I’m feeling about his behaviour, “I’m really upset with you right now.” Then I add, “I expect you to make amends.”
The first time I used this phrase with Onetime was after he dumped some cloud dough all over the living room carpet after I told him it needed to stay in the kitchen. I was SO mad! It clogs the vacuum and is really hard to get out of the carpet.
His reply was…”What amends mean Mama?” I told him that it meant that he needed to DO something to “make it better.”
His first response was to run to the freezer to get an ice pack (he had been getting an ice pack for his Dad’s broken toe for the last few weeks.) So we had a little talk about the different ways he could help this situation. In the end, he decided to get a broom and help clean up.
I have used the above phrase with my son often since I learned about it and I think it’s a great start to teaching him to pay attention to the effects of his behaviour on others. To me, this is a huge part of showing empathy. After all, we all make mistakes and hurt others by accident.
I’m so glad you stuck with me throughout this lengthy post! As you can tell, this is a subject that is very dear to my heart and one which I have thought about in depth with regards to Onetime.
Do you have any great ideas for teaching kids about empathy? I would truly LOVE to hear them. Please leave a comment below!
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