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Do You Teach Your Children Empathy?

Parents can create countless teachable moments to help their kids understand how it might feel to be in someone else’s shoes and to convey empathy through words & actions.

Put yourself in someone else’s shoes.  As discussed in my recent blog, “” empathy is defined as recognizing, understanding, and caring about how someone feels, or being able to put yourself in someone’s shoes. "Treat others the way you want to be treated” is the modified golden rule that conveys empathy. Parents can offer their children loads of opportunities to increase their sensitivity toward others, to understand how a person is feeling, or how it might feel to be in someone else’s situation. 

Create awareness of others’ feelings.  Whether it is a situation occurring in your family, on television, in a movie or a book, there are endless opportunities to point out or remind children of other people’s feelings.  “How do you think she felt?”  “What could others have said or done to help her feel better?”What would you do?”  These questions can help focus your child’s attention to other people’s feelings on a regular basis and can result in brainstorming empathetic and caring responses and reactions.  (Very young children will need help in identifying what feelings are, prior to answering these questions).

Help kids understand differences.  It is not uncommon for a child to automatically feel anxious of uncomfortable when they encounter someone who is different. The uneasiness and lack of understanding of the difference can lead to ridicule, finger-pointing or exclusion. Kids encounter cultural, racial, religious, and socio-economic differences, in addition to knowing people with physical, academic, and behavioral challenges.  We can alleviate the anxiety by talking about the differences they notice in others and creating opportunities to clarify misconceptions and provide factual information. Creating or heightening an awareness of the difference definitely contributes to a greater understanding and empathy. 

Provide opportunities to help others. The development of empathy can be enhanced by providing opportunities for children to help others. Volunteering at a soup kitchen, doing a favor for an ill or elderly neighbor, donating toys and clothes to charity, and taking canned goods to a local food pantry are acts that help children realize that good deeds can make an incredible difference in the lives of others. These acts of kindness also positively contribute to their self-esteem.

“I understand how you feel.” “You must have been so upset.”  “That must have felt terrible!”  The most powerful lessons in empathy take place when parents model empathy by conveying an understanding of how a child feels. The first step is encouraging your child to tell you what he or she is feeling. The second step is to communicate to your son or daughter an understanding and concern for his or her feelings or situation with words and facial expressions. Of course, hugs provide a lot of comfort as well.  Paraphrasing what your child has expressed communicates that you really understand.  Affirming your child’s feelings is a key way to instill empathy.  It is similar to kissing your child’s skinned knee to “make it better.” 

Although validation of the feelings may not “fix” the problem the child is facing, it is quite consoling and reassuring, which generally helps kids feel better. As parents, we often want to immediately get rid of the pain or discomfort our sons and daughters are experiencing. In many cases, we cannot. However, communicating and showing an understanding of children’s feelings is comforting, can reduce anxiety and worry, and it teaches empathy. 

Don’t forget to empathize with positive feelings!  Remember that we can empathize with positive feelings as well! “I know you must feel awesome that you did so well on your test.” “You must be excited that you scored the soccer goal to win the game!” It is important to help kids make the connection between positive actions and behavior and good feelings.  Conveying empathy at these special times of achievement and accomplishment enhances a child’s self-esteem.  

There are countless teachable moments in our daily lives, and simply training your child’s attention to other people’s feelings on a regular basis is a great way to start instilling empathy.  Conveying empathy through words and actions is an ongoing process that entails consistent review and reinforcement. 

How do you teach empathy to your children?

About the blogger: Judy S. Freedman, a licensed clinical social worker and bullying prevention specialist, is the author of Easing the Teasing – Helping Your Child Cope with Name-Calling, Ridicule, and Verbal Bullying.'   She lectures and conducts workshops for parents, educators, and mental health professionals throughout the country.  She recently spoke at the National PTA Convention in San Jose, California. Learn more about Judy and her work at www.easingtheteasing.com.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Me July 21, 2012 at 07:33 PM
Richard: "Me, that remark, like Sully's remarks, should get you kicked off of Patch too." Are you actually suggesting that I should be censored? The only thing that I have done is to quote the words you typed with your own hands. We aren't talking about a simple mis-spoken word here, this is something you actually thought about and typed on your keyboard. "Being mentally ill is not a crime in the United States-hence, police cannot just make an arbitrary arrest because someone is not acting normally. The courts have tied our hands. Sad, but fact." Perhaps it is you who owes an apology to those families.
Dr. Mark Solomon July 21, 2012 at 08:03 PM
Empathy, like intelligence, creativity, etc. is a tough thing to truly understand ans/or measure. Behavior and inner experience sometime go hand in hand and sometimes don't. People with no empathy, such as sociopaths, are often quite able to act in ways that others would probably experience as empathic. Empathic people are quite capable under a variety of circumstances (certainly mental illness being one of them) to act in cruel or destructive ways. As Ms. Freedman suggests, there are lessons to be taught with increasing empathy in mind, but like in all teaching/learning situations there are often limitations in what can be accomplished or factors that can undo whatever has been taught. Quite frankly, I believe that Sully's first response was golden - and empathic to boot.
Sully July 21, 2012 at 08:38 PM
Thank you, Doctor. I'm not always an ass (but I do play one on TV... Or on the Patch).
J July 24, 2012 at 01:36 PM
I feel that children are taught about empathy but is not really practiced. If it were practiced, then the children(with special differences) would not be routinely left out of activities. When a child has a birthday party, the parents would invite all girls from the class, all boys from the class or the entire class. That is what I was taught when I was a child. However, today, parents allow picking and chosing which kids to invite, thus, deliberately teaching their children the opposite of empathy. For example, if there are 8 girls in the class, and only 6 are invited, how do the other 2 feel when they hear about the party...Yes...they will hear either through the other kids or parents talking. Kids make mistakes but the parents often miss a learning opportunity. How about the group of kids getting together to go to the movies and walking past a home, where a special needs child lives, on their way to pick up another friend. Did any of these kids think about inviting this person...the same person that goes to school with them on the same bus and attends the same classes? Did anyone think about inviting the person to sit with them during lunch? Call on the phone? All that is really needed, is encouragement, from the family to put his/herself into the other person's shoes to and ask about how he/she would feel if someone did that to them and them knew about it?
Judy S. Freedman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. July 24, 2012 at 10:42 PM
J, The situations you describe are sad, but true. Modeling acceptance, inclusion, respect, and compassion is crucial in teaching empathy to our children. Learning by example is the most powerful lesson!

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