We understand that empathy is important – but how do we help our children develop this complex skill?
We have many dreams for our children. We hope they are happy, healthy, emotionally well-adjusted people who can positively impact the world. We hope they are confident, kind, know how to be a good friend, and have good friends. We hope they are successful at school, helpful and engaged and develop a positive relationship with Jesus (if this is part of your family’s conviction). These things are heart things, and empathy plays a large part in creating these outcomes.
What is empathy?
Empathy is 3 things:
- Emotional sharing- when we feel distress ourselves because we witness another experiencing distress.
- Empathetic concern – motivation to care for another in distress
- Perspective taking – the ability to consciously put oneself in the mind of another and imagine their concerns, thoughts and feelings
- By soothing an infant, you’ll help him learn to comfort himself and, eventually, to comfort others.
- Toddlers are sensitive to the feelings of their friends and will often mimic their emotions which is a necessary precursor to empathy.
- Empathy needs to be repeatedly modeled and encouraged in toddlers before it becomes a part of their behavior
- Threes can make the connection between emotions and desires, and they can respond to a friend’s distress with simple soothing gestures.
- sometimes preschoolers can only relate to the feelings of others if they share the same feelings and perspective on a situation. Perspective taking is a complex skill and grows gradually.
- Fours are capable of seeing a situation from another person’s perspective. Yet they need to know that not all reactions to feelings are OK. They are navigating their emotions and appropriate responses and this grows with modelling and practice.
- With their ever-increasing vocabulary, children love to share their feelings, and discussions about emotions will help them develop a better understanding of the feelings of others.
- Fives and sixes are learning how to read others’ feelings through their actions, gestures, and facial expressions — an essential empathy and social skill.
- By modeling and encouraging empathy, kindergartners will learn how to become compassionate members of a caring community.
Developing empathy in your child
Be empathic. Avoid the simple “quick-fix” by solving children’s problems or by giving them the comforting “everything will be all right” answer to their feelings. Instead, be a good role model by reflecting what they are feeling. Acknowledge their feelings, help them to label them and then give them positive choices in how to respond. “I see you are feeling disappointed. You were hoping to stay and play longer. Let’s take some deep breaths together and calm……Would you like to say goodbye to grandma or granddad first before we leave? “or “would you like to put your left shoe or right shoe on first?”
Use expressive photographs, drawings, and wordless books to provide practice in “reading” the nonverbal expressions and emotions of others. Remember that there is no right or wrong answer in these activities. Allow children the safety of expressing what they are feeling and imagining without criticism.
Express your feelings openly. If you are having a hard day, tell your child. (with age appropriate detail) Not only might their reactions amaze you, your ability to verbalize a range of emotions and problem solve appropriate responses will help children recognize and respond to the emotions of others and grow in their ability to handle their own emotional responses.
Demonstrate how you handle negative emotions and self-regulate. Your modeling is essential to their learning and development
- We are made in God’s image therefore we all have value.
- Be aware of how we refer to others. What is my narrative? spoken or unspoken. What are my fears when I consider spending time with people outside of my comfort zone? (be honest!!)
- Be intentional about creating opportunities to spend time with children who are not the same as me. Different cultures, different special needs, different ages. When we are not afraid of different but embrace all of God’s people then we can empathize and place true value like God does.