23 May What is Empathy! – See our Blog to find out more!
What is empathy?
Empathy involves the ability to understand someone else’s perspective and understand how they feel about it.
Empathy is essential in interpersonal relations, has been linked to moral behaviour and in general, humans are kinder when they can understand one another’s perspectives and emotions.
In a child, the skill of empathy advances as their cognitive structures develop. Between the ages of two and four years children start to become aware of their own emotions and feelings. Between five and seven years children start developing compassion and reading emotional cues from others. These stages of development are the foundations that help develop empathy in children. For some, the ability to feel empathy comes naturally. Interestingly, it is not an innate deposition that unfolds equally in all children.
Fortunately, family’s can have a considerable influence to help develop empathy in children. If you encourage empathy, children can become more empathic to others.
3 tips to support the development of empathy
Tip 1 – Empathise with your child and show empathy towards others
This is all about role modeling empathy and being mindful of your own responses to your child’s emotions. The easiest way to do this is to be reflective of the emotions your child displays and validate how they are feeling. Show them that you understand how they feel, that you are concerned for them and that you accept their feelings. Even if it seems trivial (like a huge meltdown over one ‘bumpy’ sock), try simply stating what you see. For instance, instead of saying “you are getting so upset over a sock, it isn’t a big deal”, try “Gee you look upset. That sock is frustrating you”. Similarly, model empathy towards others; animals, family members, people on a movie, or even to that sad teddy bear in your child’s game. Children learn through observation and through imitation, and like adults, sometimes all they want is to be heard and validated.
Tip 2 – Use every day opportunities to address perspective taking
Children are all born with the capacity to show empathy, we just need to nurture it. You can use moments from everyday life to encourage caring and compassionate thoughts through ‘perspective taking.’ Talk openly about how another may feel when you identify situations that elicit an empathetic response in books, movies, at the park or in your home. Elaborate further by asking your child to put themselves in that person’s shoes, for instance, “Oh, look at that, your brother dropped his pencils. How do you think he feels? What could we do to help him feel better?”
Tip 3 – Encourage and praise emotional sharing
It is important to keep the lines of communication open when it comes to emotional sharing. Your child needs to be reassured that it is okay for them to experience both negative and positive emotions. They should also feel safe to express all emotions to you. You can encourage this by asking your child how they felt when they experienced a situation or event that might have produced a particularly strong empathetic response. When they do exhibit empathy, reinforce the behaviour by praising them for showing compassion. If your child shares an emotion with you, even an unpleasant one, make sure to tell them it is wonderful that they are sharing their emotions, and that it demonstrates how kind and caring they are.