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Developing Empathy: Raising Children Who Care

What is Empathy?

Empathy is the ability to understand the feelings of others, feel what they feel, and respond in helpful, compassionate ways. Children who are able to identify with and comfort others make friends more easily, generally perform better academically, and demonstrate a higher level of moral and emotional development.

Are children born empathetic?

Unlike appearance or intelligence, which depends largely on genetics, empathy is a skill that children learn. We are born with the capacityfor empathetic behavior, but whether or not we mature into caring, understanding adults is principally determined by what we are taught.

How do we teach empathy?

  • Infants (Birth to 1yr.) – Babies learn about empathy by the way parents treat them when they are cranky, fussy, or frightened. The foundation for empathetic behavior begins with the trust and attachment that is established when a parent consistently, promptly and lovingly responds to their baby’s needs.
  • Toddlers (1-2yrs.) – Toddlers have strong feelings but they are not always capable of identifying or managing those feelings. Parents can help children name what they feel and show them how their actions are tied to those strong emotions. In this way parents can lay the groundwork necessary for the child to connect his feelings and actions with those of others as he matures.
  • Pre-schoolers (3-5yrs.) – During this developmental stage learning how to share is a great tool for nurturing empathy. Help small children learn to share by “taking turns”. Use a kitchen timer if necessary to help children remember their friend deserves a chance to enjoy a toy. Before friends come over ask your child to pick out toys he thinks his friend would like to play with. Allow him to put away a few of his very favorite toys that might cause problems. Don’t forget to express your appreciation when your child behaves in a caring manner. The use of puppets can be a wonderful way to help your child learn to think of others’ needs and feelings.

By the time your child reaches 4 years old his cognitive (thinking ability) development has progressed enough that he is able to associate his emotions with the feelings of others. Before this point, he assumed everyone else saw and felt the very same things he did. Help him continue to progress by pointing out people’s facial expressions you observe while shopping, etc. and question him about what he thinks they are feeling. Explain in plain, simple terms the effects his behavior has on others. Point out the impact of his actions and ask him to think about how he would feel if the roles were reversed.

  • Ages 5 and up – Continue to talk with your child regularly about his feelings and those he recognizes in others. Help him to see how people are very similar in regards to emotions no matter their age, ethnicity, or gender. He can also learn about empathy by talking about hypothetical problems. “Tell me how you would feel if your friend called you a name? How would he feel if you did the same?” As he gets older, you can teach him that although two people may experience very similar situations, they may not both react or feel as strongly as the other.
  • Model empathy – Above all, remember that parents are their children’s first and most influential teachers. If we expect our children to grow into caring, empathetic adults we must model these behaviors. Let your children see your kind and thoughtful actions, hear you express your concern for the feelings of others, and demonstrate empathetic parenting. Listen carefully to your children and ask questions that help them clarify their thoughts and feelings. As their empathy grows because of your modeling, they’ll be more able to relate deeply to others. They will also grow in their ability to practice good listening skills, help others, and show generosity.
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