Raising Empathetic Kids

People often say that kids are selfish and I don’t believe it. I see my 21-month-old giving her siblings a cuddle when they cry. Even at her young age she has some understanding what others are experiencing and she’s trying to help. When she’s not kind and considerate, it’s not because she’s selfish. She either can’t relate to the other person’s experience or she may be hungry, hurt or upset herself, which is distracting her from what’s going on around her.

The seed of empathy is already there, but it’s our job as parents to nurture this quality so that our children can grow into caring adults. Here are some practical ways to do this.

Teach children to recognise their emotions

Help them notice when they’re feeling angry, sad, frustrated, happy or peaceful. Put words to the emotions and encourage them to talk about what they’re feeling. Talk about emotions that you can find in books they’re reading or movies they’re watching. Ask questions like ‘How does this character feel?’

Talk about your own feelings

If your child sees you sad or angry, it’s very easy to say, ‘I’m ok’ and put a fake smile on. I’ve done it more than once myself, it’s my natural instinct to protect my children from negative emotions. They can learn more about emotions and empathy, if you let them in on your feelings instead. Of course, I’m not suggesting that you put the weight of your problems onto your children’s shoulders. Just a short answer about how you’re feeling and why is sufficient. Not only it’ll be a good teaching moment, it’ll also deepen your connection with your children and help clear any doubts they may have that your bad mood could be related to something they’ve done.

Relate other people’s emotions to your children’s experience

To us it may be obvious that if someone hits us and it hurts, it must mean that when we hit someone else we will hurt them. A young child hasn’t necessarily developed the same ability to recognise patterns. That’s why it’s important to not just say ‘no’ to hitting or encourage your child to say ‘thank you’, but also explain why and how your child’s actions will affect others. Look for examples from their own lives to give them so that they can understand or return to the conversation when an example comes up.

Model empathy

It seems obvious, doesn’t it? Yet, I had to add being a role model, because it is so easy to lose our empathy for our children when they’re pushing our buttons. Often we’re quick to jump to conclusions and label our kids’ behaviour as ‘bad’, without trying to understand it first.

Modelling empathy applies to positive situations, too. Have you ever dismissed your child’s excitement about something they’ve achieved only because you were too absorbed in your own stuff? It happens to me almost daily! And it only takes a few seconds to give them your full attention, share their joy and then return to what you were doing.

Be patient

As you can see from the above examples, no one is perfectly empathetic all the time, not even us, parents. Don’t expect it from your children either. Be prepared to repeat yourself again and again, and be there for them when they make mistakes.

Image by Ben_Kerckx via pixabay.com

By Tatiana Apostolova

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