Clients and friends often ask me how to cultivate empathy in their children. Instead of only understanding their own point of view, parents want their children to learn how to share, take others' perspectives, and how to value other people's opinions just as they value their own. Although this skill can be tough when kids are very young, it is never too early to focus on empathy in the home and outside of it.
Here are six ways to teach empathy to your children, whether they are toddlers, preschool aged, or school aged.
1. Teach them about emotions.
Kids can't empathize with what others are feeling if they don't know how to put words to their own emotions. As your child goes through his day, make sure to point out which emotions you see him feel, and also which ones you're feeling.
Example: "I see you're disappointed that there was only one cookie left." "Mommy felt anxious right there when the car didn't start."
No child is too young to start hearing emotion words and learning what they mean.
2. Read and watch TV together.
Even the simplest board book will have characters that your child can learn to empathize with. Don't just read, but discuss what characters are feeling as the story progresses. And shows like Daniel Tiger are excellent at teaching empathy, and work particularly well if you and your child discuss what's happening on the screen.
Example: "Elmo looks sad there when he didn't see his friends at first. Now that they surprised him with a cake, I wonder what he's thinking!"
3. After conflicts, discuss what everyone was feeling.
While your child is hitting his sibling is not the time to discuss feelings. But when the children are separated and have calmed down, it is a great time to go back and talk about what each child was feeling. Younger children can be guided to figure out what they may have been thinking or feeling at the time. This can be done while helping them figure out how to express their feelings in a more adaptive way.
Example: "You seemed very frustrated when Josh took your car. I think that is why you hit. Hitting isn't okay, but maybe next time you could say, It was my turn and I'll give it to you next."
4. Let them see you resolve conflicts in your own life.
Almost everyone argues in front of their kids sometimes, even though ideally you should limit this. The key to ensuring that any arguments that do occur do not have a bad impact on your kids is by making sure that if you fight in front of the kids, you make up in front of them too. Obviously, if you cannot keep your tone and your words under control, make sure to wait until the children are not near you, but a good rule of thumb to remember is: if kids never see conflict resolution in a relationship, they will be unlikely to be able to resolve conflicts in their own later relationships. Make sure to take the other party's perspective in order to resolve.
So, if you and your husband are arguing over, for example, division of household tasks, be sure to have the children see when you compromise over who will do the laundry and who will drive the kids to soccer. Then they will see that arguing is okay, it can lead to productive resolutions, and that people can love each other even when they disagree.
Example: "I know you're tired after work, so would you like me to do the driving while you put in the laundry, then we can both fold together later?"
5. Speak for those who can't speak for themselves.
Children frequently exhibit empathy toward babies, who naturally elicit empathy as an evolutionary adaptation to ensure that they get taken care of by older humans. To make the most of this phenomenon, make sure to discuss and wonder aloud with your child about what babies (and pets) may be feeling.
Example: "Baby Mike looks upset. What do you think is wrong? Do you think he is hungry or tired?" or "Laila is sniffing Grandma a lot. Is she trying to make friends?"
6. Model respect for those who seem different.
Children are naturally fascinated by those who are different. My own toddlers often loudly asked, "What dat?" when seeing people in wheelchairs. If a child is curious about someone with a disability, don't just shush them. Make friends with the person and allow your child to see that this person is more similar to him than different. Often, the person will explain his disability to your child, if your child is prompted to ask respectful questions, which is how my children were taught about wheelchairs. (Other tips for teaching your child respectful behavior toward individuals with disabilities can be found here.)
These are some little tips to ensure that you can help your child reach her innate potential to be empathic and kind. However, there is no substitute for acting empathic yourself, and allowing your child to observe you. Your child will learn the most from watching you interact with others in a kind, empathic way, so if you need to work on this yourself (we all do), read this. Till we meet again, I remain, The Blogapist Who Says, Even Toddlers Can Empathize, Although They Can Also Suck.
Learn about Dr. Rodman's private practice, including therapy, coaching, and consultation, here. This blog is not intended as diagnosis, assessment, or treatment, and should not replace consultation with your medical provider.