Empathy is about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and trying to relate to what they might be feeling. Out of empathy comes caring, consideration, compassion and even remorse. If you are unable to think how your actions might hurt another person, how can you possibly feel bad for what you have done?
While empathy is a natural trait for many of us, for others it must be nurtured and encouraged to grow. Sometimes people with natural empathy will try to turn it off to avoid being hurt by others. This is much easier to do if you are not really aware of empathy in the first place. In books and movies where the “bad guy” starts out cold and hurtful then slowly evolves into a likable human being, it is his empathy that has been developed.
Encouraging the pathways for empathy in our kids does not need to be a lot of work, but if over-looked for many kids can be a really big deal.
- Help kids become aware of their own feelings by pointing out what you see. “I can see you’re disappointed” “I understand your disgust…”
- When your child does something hurtful to another person, ask her to think about how it might feel if the roles were reversed. Try to get her thinking without making her feel bad for making a mistake. “I wonder how you would feel if someone took away your favorite toy and wouldn’t let you have it back.”
- Share your own feelings and take full responsibility for them. “I’m furious the dog ate my food while I was on the phone – I was looking forward to eating that sandwich.”
- Model empathy to your child. “I can understand why you might feel that way. I would feel angry if someone did that to me.”
- Use situations around you to discuss how other people might be feeling. Tactfully talk about situations you witness or use the characters in movies and TV shows. “I think she felt embarrassed when the store clerk laughed at her – what do you think?”
- When people have to care for something living, they often develop a sense of connection which helps to teach empathy. Teach your kids how to take care of something living – a plant, row of carrots, bird, reptile, hamster…
- Have your kids act out a short story (fairy tales work well) and encourage them to really get into the role. To be a great actor you have to think carefully about how your character would be feeling which is what empathy is all about.
Developing empathy is important for all of us. Getting along with others, being able to wait your turn, treating people with compassion, feeling bad when you mistreat others – are all dependent on our ability to care about how that other person might feel. Highlighting this process for our kids makes it easier for them to understand and use this tool effectively in their lives.