6 Ways To Help Kids Develop Empathy

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In these days of easy access to information, how we manage our emotions and relate to people has become more important than ever. Some say that one’s emotional quotient (EQ) is more important than intelligence in today’s society.

Brain Stages’ 6-Part series will give you ways to help your kids understand what they feel as well as how to respond to others’ emotions. Most important, you’ll learn how to support them in developing communication and other social skills, so critical in our world.

Do your children seem thankful for the gifts they receive? Are your kids excited to give gifts to others—to you and to siblings, maybe aunts, uncles and cousins too?

Or do your kids give few or no gifts to others and seem disappointed after the presents are all opened with an air of “Is that all there is?”

Although my own children have grown up to be grateful, giving adults, our family had a couple of “Is that all there is?” holidays along the way. It took a while for my husband and me to figure out how to help them become appreciative and generous people.

It Starts With Empathy

The first step in developing such traits started with empathy—that is, showing our kids how to put themselves in someone else’s shoes.

Dr. Lawrence Kutner, clinical psychologist at Harvard Medical School points out “Children who are empathetic tend to do better in school, in social situations, and in their adult careers. Children and teenagers who have the greatest amount of skill at empathy are viewed as leaders by their peers. The best teachers of that skill are the children’s parents.

You’ve likely begun teaching empathy already. When our toddlers see something out of the ordinary, they often mortify us by pointing it out.

“Hey, Mommy, look! A pirate!” a 3-year-old might say, seeing someone with a patch over one eye.

“Well, that patch is pretty cool, but I don’t think she’s a pirate,” we might respond, then look at the person and say, “Sorry. Too many cartoons, I think.”

(My friend, who wore an eye-patch after an operation, confided that she preferred to be acknowledged rather than ignored by parents whisking off their children in embarrassment.)

We might explain later (out of earshot of the person with the anomaly) that it’s not nice to point out things on people—a big nose, a limp, or any other physical difference—that it might hurt their feelings, and we don’t want to hurt people.

Once kids understand that other people have feelings too, they become kinder and more respectful to others. The more we model empathy, the more our children will pick up on it as they get older. Still, we must also help them imagine what others might be feeling to develop this important attribute.

6 Ways to Help Kids Develop Empathy

1. Teach your children about emotions. 

Once children begin to understand their own feelings, they can start to empathize with others.

  • Point out when your child is happy: “Look at you, all happy with that star on your math paper. I’m proud of you for sticking with it and figuring out those word problems.” 
  • Rather than getting angry when your child lashes out, use the opportunity to mention the emotion you notice. “You seem disappointed that you have to do your homework.” Or “You seem frustrated that you can’t talk to your friend until after dinner.” Acknowledging your child’s feelings will generally diffuse the upset and allow you to talk about whatever is bothering her more calmly.
  • Talk about your feelings. “I’m so excited to see this movie with you!” Or “I’m nervous about the presentation I have to give at work tomorrow. I have butterflies in my stomach!” Then tell your child about the experience at the end of the next day. That way, she’ll learn it’s okay to be scared before you do something as long as you don’t let fear stop you.

2. Ask how your child would feel. 

When your child begins to understand emotions, you can start to practice how to empathize with others. By kindergarten, kids’ brains are equipped to talk hypothetically to learn about empathy.

Use a real example, if you can, to help your child get an idea of what another person might be feeling to engender patience and understanding.

For instance, if your child scoffs about how his friend can’t catch a ball, you could ask how he would feel if someone teased about how he’s still working on learning to jump rope.

Then follow up with something like: “You’re working on learning to jump rope, and your friend is working on catching a ball. Anything worth doing is worth being lousy at it at first. Soon you guys will be good at those things.”

The point is to help your child identify with the other person’s circumstance. 

3. Volunteer to help at a local charity together.

Spending time handing out blankets, serving food at a homeless shelter, or providing any service to help others offers children an opportunity to look outside of themselves, and a glimpse of what it’s like not to be so fortunateYou can talk about why children might be wearing clothes that look worn out or don’t quite fit.

You have to be a little careful though. One year, my girls and I donated our long hair to Wigs for Kids, an organization that makes wigs for children who have had chemotherapy and are fighting cancer. Without meaning to, I made them feel obligated to cut their hair because they were with me at the salon when I had my own hair cut to donate. My second-grader, at the time, blamed me when people kept mistaking her for a boy because of her short hair.

If your time is tight, I’m a big believer in organizations such as Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts. Scout troops provided several opportunities for our children to volunteer to help other people. Those experiences helped them to understand how lucky they were to have a close family who cared about them, enough food to eat, and a comfortable place to live.

4. Counter a negative comment with positive one.

If your child points out something less than appealing about someone or makes a snarky comment about a friend, offer an alternative.

For example, in line at the grocery store, your child whispers to you that the woman in front of you doesn’t have much hair; she’s almost bald. You could counter that she’s wearing a nice dress, and she has a kind face. The embarrassing comment is already out, and the woman likely heard your child in such close quarters, so you might as well make the best of it.

Most people appreciate being acknowledged in a positive way, and sadly, many don’t receive compliments often. You might make that person’s day. You’ll also be showing your child to look for positive attributes in people rather than focusing on negative ones.

In the car on the way home, you can talk about why making a comment like that in the store could be hurtful. Ask how your child would feel if they were losing their hair and someone pointed it out in public (see #2).

5. Model empathy in disagreements you have with your child.

You may be able to diffuse an argument if you stop yourself before the conversation gets too heated. Acknowledge the emotion you think you’re seeing in your child, empathize with her, then ask a question or two to find the root of the problem.

Something like: “You seem really angry that I didn’t pick you up after school. I guess I would be upset if I thought someone was going to pick me up and they didn’t come to get me. Did you forget that I had a doctor’s appointment after work, or did something happen on the bus today?”

6. After an argument, guide kids to handle a problem better next time.

Anyone who has more than one child or has had friends over has witnessed conflicts between children. First, see if the kids can work it out without you intervening. If the argument ends, but you notice there are still hard feelings, sit with them and discuss the altercation.

Ask each person, in turn, to tell you their version of what happened, and instruct the other person not to interrupt. Then ask about their feelings. This is a great exercise for teaching children how to listen without thinking about whether going to say next.

Once everyone involved in the argument has had a chance to share, guide them in empathizing with each other— putting themselves in the other person’s place. Help them arrive at how they may be able to solve a problem in the future without hard feelings.

Research says gratefulness and generosity are the keys to happiness.

Enjoy the journey—it goes fast. 

PATRICIA WILKINSON – mother of two, taught grades kindergarten through sixth for 23 years, in both public and private schools. She earned a BA in recreation from California State University, Long Beach, and did graduate work at California State Universities, Los Angeles and Chico, to earn a Clear Multiple-Subject Teaching Credential and Language Development Specialist certificate from the State of California. Today, Trish facilitates life-changing workshops for parents and teachers. It’s amazing what can happen when years of creativity and practical experience merge with thousands of hours of brain research. She lives in Bend, Oregon, with her awesome husband, Chuck, and their rambunctious golden retriever, Alice. Visit her at http://thebrainstages.com

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