Empathy is the ability to understand the feelings of another person. At times, it’s even sharing those feelings with the other person. Many say that empathy is the ability to walk in someone else’s shoes, which simply means to see a situation from their perspective.
Children, like adults, have thoughts and feelings that come and go. They are just starting to learn about their own thoughts and feelings, what they mean, and how they impact them. Empathy may not be a natural skill for every child, and that’s okay. The great news is that no matter how naturally empathy comes to a child, it’s a skill that can be fostered with awareness and practice.
Let’s jump into raising empathetic kids. We are sharing 5 strategies to make teaching empathy to your child easier!
1. Encourage open expression of emotion
Children show their emotions in all sorts of ways. It can be tempting to want to discourage big emotions from being expressed in big ways, like crying, yelling, or having a meltdown. These ways of expressing emotions can draw negative attention from others, send us into a fight-or-flight mode ourselves, or make us want to quickly find a fix to those feelings. It’s important for children to see that uncomfortable emotions are not bad. These types of emotions can feel bad certainly, but they are also completely natural. Encouraging your child to feel their emotion and allowing them to express it openly will help them move the feeling through them. That doesn't mean this experience will be easy on you, but it's also a great practice for deepening your own empathy skills. Take a few deep breaths, pause, and imagine how your child is feeling. Try to remember a time when you felt the same emotion to bring mindfulness into the moment.
It’s also beneficial to help your child get more curious about the feeling. Ask your child to name what they are feeling, notice the sensations they sense in their body and let them know that their feeling is natural. Teach empathy through reflecting it back to them. “I understand that you are sad. Crying is okay when we feel sad. I also cry sometimes when I am sad.” As your child works through their feeling and the largeness of the emotion subsides, ask them about what caused it.
2. Promote volunteering and helping
Time is one of our most precious resources. Some would say that it is the most valuable resource we have. One of the best ways to put empathy into action and help your child to feel for other people is to make time for volunteering. Teaching empathy to kids can simply be just carving out a few hours to make a difference to someone else.
It’s great to volunteer as a family and also allow a child that is old enough to volunteer on their own to a cause that is worthy to them. Through volunteering a child sees that they have a great power to help others. They also get a better understanding of why others benefit from their help. Volunteering also surrounds a child with people who genuinely want to positively impact others, which means they have even more empathetic role models to watch and learn from.
Check out 50 volunteering ideas for kids.
3. Praise empathetic actions
A huge part of teaching children empathy is praising actions where they show empathy without being asked. Positive reinforcement is an incredibly valuable tool for shaping positive actions in a child. If your child takes a step to be empathetic to someone else, praise them specifically for what they did. Maybe your child chose to share their cookie with a sad sibling, pet a lonely dog to help it feel more at ease, or offered a tissue to another child they saw crying. Your child’s ability to understand the feeling of another person and show them compassion is worthy of admiration. These little moments also make our hearts, as parents, burst with delight, and remind us that raising empathetic kids is beyond possible.
4. Make emotional cues a game
Social emotional learning takes practice. The ability to recognize facial expressions and body language doesn’t often just come naturally to a child. These are social skills that young children can struggle with. Teaching empathy to kids can be fun by playing games that foster emotional intelligence. These types of games help to build a child's emotional language vocabulary.
When you read stories, watch a TV show, or pay attention to bystanders in a crowd, try to encourage your child to recognize body language and facial expressions and connect them to an emotion. These practical and real life situations can help your child understand others better. Here’s an example of putting this emotional intelligence game into action: “Do you see how that man is smiling and laughing? What do you think he is feeling?” “You noticed the lady in the pink shirt looks sad. What makes you think she is sad?”
You could also make your own facial expressions for your child and ask them to guess what you may be feeling. Some facial expressions to try are surprised, sad, angry, happy, excited, and frustrated. This could also be done by trading facial expressions for body language. Some body language to try is clenching your fists, making a pouting face, rolling your eyes, stomping, and jumping for joy.
Another crafty idea is to provide your elementary school child with a magazine and ask them to cut out all happy expressions or sad expressions. Or, you could have them cut out many different people and review the expressions together. Raising empathetic kids can be as much fun for you as it is for your child.
5. Help them learn from missed empathy opportunities
Teaching children empathy can also be done through missed experiences. Some of our best learning is done through mistakes that allow us to fail forward. If your child doesn’t show empathy to someone else in a social situation, this provides a good opportunity for them to learn empathy from you. Rather than reprimanding your child on the spot, you could model the correct behavior yourself and teach them how to practice empathy. Children are always watching us, so you can bet that your child will be noticing what you do and the other person’s reaction.
Empathy is an important part of building a child’s social emotional skills. And, the benefits are amazing for your child and any relationship they build. These tips and strategies will assist your child in practicing empathy, and they will get the hang of it with your help and support!