Raising an Empathetic Child: 10 Little Things You Can Do Right Now
Empathy helps us build close relationships, maintain friendships, develop strong communities, and generally be kind, caring people. Here's how to help kids hone this essential social skill.
See the world through their eyes
Empathy is the feeling of understanding and sharing another person’s experiences and emotions. In order to teach a child empathy, parents must lead by example, working to see the world through their children’s eyes. This may mean anticipating potentially upsetting events in your child’s life and acting accordingly. “To empathize authentically we must understand our child’s point of view, but often we don’t, at least not at the moment,” says Janet Lansbury, parent educator and author of Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting. “At those times, when we simply acknowledge what we see—’It upset you when Joey touched your shoulder’—it can help steer us toward understanding and empathy.” We might realize, for example, “Oh, that’s right, it’s almost nap time, and my daughter gets very sensitive to touch when she’s tired.” Before you tell your child that it’s time to leave the park, or remind him that the really cool truck he’s examining has to stay at the store, acknowledge his point of view. Acknowledge your child’s feelings and wishes, even if they seem ridiculous, irrational, self-centered, or wrong. “This is not the same as agreeing,” Lansbury says, “and it’s definitely not indulgent or allowing an undesirable behavior.” (Related: Boost your empathy skills by learning the things all good listeners do during daily conversations.)
Model empathy toward others
Studies suggest that empathy, or the personality traits that create empathy, might be inherited. Carolyn Zahn Waxler, a senior research scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who has conducted studies on twins and empathy, told The New York Times: “There is some degree of heritability. There is no gene for empathy, there is no gene for altruism. What’s heritable may be some personality characteristics.” But even with the right DNA, kids are still more likely to imitate what they see more than what they’re told, so modeling is a powerful tool. Try to cultivate empathetic behavior in your own daily life: Let your kids see you caring for others and attending to their emotional needs in an open and honest way. (Check out these little exercises that increase empathy.) Ed Christophersen, PhD, a clinical child psychologist at Children’s Mercy Kansas Hospital, encourages parents to point out to their children when they’re modeling empathy. “Children are much more likely to show empathy toward others when they’ve seen their parents modeling empathy on a number of occasions, over a period of months or years,” Christophersen says. “Merely discussing the importance of showing empathy, in the absence of actually doing it, is likely to be far less effective.”
Talk about how others feel
Being aware of other people’s feelings is important, but it’s even better to then talk about those feelings with your kids. “Explain how other people feel,” Nancy Eisenberg, PhD, a professor of psychology at Arizona State University, told the New York Times. “Reflect the child’s feelings, but also point out, ‘look, you hurt Johnny’s feelings.'” Don’t just discuss other people’s emotions in a negative context, but try to reflect aloud on your experiences of handling people’s emotions sensitively. You might say, “Mrs. Rodriguez just lost her husband, and she’s feeling very sad. I’d like to do something to show her that we’re sorry she’s sad. What do you think we might do?” Inviting a child to take part in the acts of empathy between adults can help a child understand how it works in other contexts and relationships. Check out the little things you can do to be a good friend.
Ask questions about hypothetical situations
Perhaps on an outing to the park your child sees kids arguing over a ball. He’s intently watching their tense exchange, and you can sense that he’s internally relating emotionally to the child who is clinging to the ball stubbornly. This would be an ideal time to talk about the emotions of all the children, not only the one he’s sympathizing with most. You might say, “Those boys all want that ball, don’t they? How do you think the boy who wants to keep the ball to himself is feeling? How do you think the other boys feel their friend won’t share it?” Psychologist and author Larry Kutner, PhD, elaborates on this idea: “We start teaching children empathy when they’re infants and toddlers by how we treat them when they’re angry, frustrated, frightened, or otherwise upset. As they grow older, our actions are more important than our words.” For example, a 4-year-old may cry out, “Look at that man’s big nose!” If you publicly berate your child, you’re working against yourself. Instead, quietly and gently explain why saying that may make the man feel bad. Ask him if he’s ever felt bad because of something another person has said. Around age 5 or 6, you can start introducing empathy in hypothetical situations, according to Dr. Kutner. You might say: How would you feel if someone took your toy away from you? How would your friend feel if someone took a toy away from her? By the time a child is around 8, she can begin to grapple with more complex issues, such as when another person’s emotional response might be different from her own.
Acknowledge emotions without judgment
When children feel safe expressing their emotions, even if they’re negative, they’re able to feel accepted and loved unconditionally. But parents often tend to praise positive emotions such as excitement or joy, while reacting harshly to negative emotions, which sends the message that only some emotions are okay. “Acknowledging isn’t condoning our child’s actions; it’s validating the feelings behind them,” Lansbury says. “It’s a simple, profound way to reflect our child’s experience and inner self. It sends the powerful, affirming message that every thought, desire, feeling––and every expression of your mind, body, and heart—is perfectly acceptable, appropriate and lovable.” When a child is having a hard time not getting their way, for example, you might acknowledge it by saying calmly and with compassion, “I can see that you’re really frustrated that you didn’t get the toy in the store. I bet that feels really unfair. It’s hard when we don’t get things we really want.” When a child feels heard, it communicates a sense of safety and belonging within the relationship. Here are the habits that make people trust you.
Give feelings a name
Emotional intelligence plays a vital role in the future success of a child once they reach adulthood, as research from the Carnegie Institute of Technology shows. Their findings, according to a Forbes article, reveal that 85 percent of financial success is due to skills such as personality and ability to communicate, negotiate, and lead, whereas only 15 percent is due to “technical knowledge.” Emotional intelligence is a critical job skill later in life. One key way to foster emotional intelligence is to give all feelings a name to your child, which provides a language with which to speak about them. If a child is visibly frustrated after being unable to open a granola bar, for example, you might offer some validation along with naming the feeling: “Wow, I get so frustrated when I’m unable to open things. You seem like you might be feeling frustrated. Would you like some help?” Once a child has a name for feelings like embarrassment, shame, jealousy, discomfort, anger, frustration, sadness, and joy, just to name a few, it is much easier for the child to express them and move through them with self control. These signs show you’re a master of empathy.
Allow yourself to be vulnerable with your child
There is unlimited power in the following two words: “me too.” A shared experience with others is a powerful thing, and it’s no different for children. When an adult can share their own vulnerable experiences and stories with a child, it provides the child with an incredible sense of normalcy and resilience. When an adult dares to open their own vault of embarrassing, sad, or frustrating experiences they endured as a child, it often takes the sting out of experiences the child feels awkward and alone in. This can also take the form of apologizing when you’ve made a mistake. “Making mistakes and making amends is one way we can liberate our children from shame, fear, and blame,” Brene Brown, a vulnerability researcher, has said. “When we’re not afraid to make a mistake and we know how to make amends, we’re more likely to practice loving-kindness and more likely to embrace imperfection.” On the flip side, when we don’t let our children see us make and own our mistakes, they grow up with the fear of being wrong. It’s important that children see their parents as flawed humans that can recover from mistakes and poor choices, so that they know they have the ability to do so as well. Check out key ways to offer a sincere apology.
Provide opportunities for showing empathy
Children love to be of help. They love to feel as though they are making a difference. This is why providing them with opportunities to show empathy to others is key to fostering that skill in their lives. David Schonfeld, MD, and director of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center told Parents : “The desire to help is innate. At first, children like to help others because it helps them get what they want. Next, they do so because they get praise. Finally, they begin to anticipate the needs of others, and it becomes intrinsically rewarding to do nice things for people in their lives.” Giving children the opportunity to donate some toys or food to those in need can be a good way to open the discussion about having empathy for others. Public service projects like painting fences or pulling weeds for elderly neighbors or creating artwork for residents of retirement homes can also help a child to imagine non-materials ways to show empathy. “As a society, we often place more emphasis on achievement, rather than having empathy for others,” says Courtney Ferenz, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at the Child and Family Counseling Group in Fairfax, Virginia. “However, when I speak to parents, they often cite ‘raising good people’ who contribute positively to society as the most important goal of parenting.” Ferenz recommends that parents acknowledge children positively when they offer to help others, and implement an “Acts of Kindness” jar that encourages positivity toward other family members by allowing children to earn marbles toward a reward for helping one another.
Don’t rush the expression of emotions
Don’t cry. Stop yelling. You’re okay. That didn’t hurt! This isn’t a big deal! Sound familiar? Parents often have a tendency to try to shorten and suppress their children’s emotions, which is a natural reaction as parents dislike seeing their children in pain, emotional or otherwise. This can be counter-productive, however, and can lengthen and intensify a child’s negative reaction. “If we try to calm children by assuring them that there’s no need to be upset or worried about something that’s troubling them, they may become less inclined to express their feelings,” says Lansbury. “If our goal is our child’s emotional health and keeping the door of communication open, just acknowledging is the best policy. ‘Daddy left and you are sad.’ When a toddler feels understood and senses the empathy behind our limits and corrections he still resists, cries, and complains, but at the end of the day, he knows we are with him, always in his corner. These first years will define our relationship for many years to come.”
Gratitude is a common denominator among happy people. Taking the time to count your blessings does more than focus your attention on the bright side—it can actually change your life. A study by Robert A. Emmons, PhD, a researcher for University Of California, Davis, shows that gratitude increases happiness levels by approximately 25 percent. Parents can encourage gratitude in their children by practicing it openly in their own daily lives. Having a child acknowledge the good in their lives is an important step in building a lifelong habit of positive thinking and encouraging acts of service toward others. A simple action parents can take to shift their child’s focus to gratitude is to ask the child what the best part of their day was. If it’s something such as recess or checking out a book at the library, you might say, “That sounds wonderful. Isn’t it nice that you get to go to a school you enjoy, and that you are able to pick out fun books to read?” This might seem simple, but the message it sends to the child is that the things they enjoy are worth taking the time to appreciate.