Imagine you’re at the playground with your child one morning. She’s happily playing on the swing when the little boy next to her falls off his swing and cries. What does your child do? Other children may laugh at the little boy, but one thing a child who has empathy might do is go over to the little boy and help him up.
Empathy can be defined as “feeling sad or concerned when someone else is in distress, and is one of the key character traits that leads individuals to help and be kind,” says Dr. Laura Padilla Walker, associate director of Brigham Young University’s School of Family Life in a research brief.
Children who are able to share another person's feelings and respond accordingly heightens the awareness of their own feelings and individuality. “Empathy is a skill that experts from many disciplines have deemed important for personal, relationship and career success," psychiatrist Dr. David Sack writes in Huffington Post. "People who are empathic tend to have better social interactions, academic performance and accomplishments at work than others.”
In addition, children with a strong sense of empathy can make decisions without hurting others and without seeking approval or acceptance--it strengthens them against negative peer pressure. If your child is being told by one of his friends to grab the toy of a classmate without permission, your child’s strong sense of empathy will be able to tell him that not only is this wrong, it will also hurt the feelings of his classmate. Aside from peer pressure, empathy can also protect against aggressive behavior, delinquency, and depression, says Dr. Padilla-Walker.
Children even from a young age can already show signs of empathy, says Dr. Sack. Do you notice how a toddler will offer their favorite toy or bottle to someone who is sad or upset? By age 4, a child will be able to associate her feelings with the feeling of others, and by age 7, she’ll be able to see a situation from another person’s perspective and offer appropriate help to persons in distress.
One of the best examples of empathy in young children is Julianna Travis, whose story has gone viral. After watching a video that her mom Judy made during a community outreach activity in the Philippines, the 4-year-old cried after seeing that the children had "no pajamas." She immediately went to her closet to get clothes to give away to the disadvantaged children she saw. (Read the rest of the story here.)
A sense of empathy can be strengthened and broadened (to include societal issues like discrimination, for example) as a child grows older. So, how can parents nurture and develop empathy in their child? Dr. Padilla-Walker, Dr. Sack and psychologist Dr. Eileen Kennedy-Moore offer these suggestions: 1. Show her the way. Your love and the way you respond to your child’s needs already gives him an idea of what empathy is. When a small child is fussy or uncomfortable, he is shown an example of empathy when his parent tries to work out what’s wrong and makes things better. “Children who know they can count on a parent or caregiver for emotional support and physical affection are more likely to offer help to others. Studies show that children have a greater capacity for empathy when their own emotional needs are met at home,” says Dr. Sack. 2. Identify feelings and talk about it. Some level of self-awareness is needed to build empathy, says Dr. Sack. Encourage your child to be self-aware by identifying and validating his feelings when he's angry or upset. Say, “You’re angry because you want wanted to play with that toy. I understand--it’s okay to feel angry, but it’s not okay to throw things.” This way, he’ll know that he’s feeling is anger and, as an extension, be able to understand other children when they experience the emotion, too.
Plus, during difficult situations that include emotional conflict, instead of discounting a child’s feelings or forcing him to follow, discuss how their actions affect others. Do away with lines like, “Say you’re sorry.” There is much more to learn when you ask him, “How do you think your friend is feeling? How would you feel if you were him? What could you do to help?”
3. Be friendly. One of the simplest ways to foster empathy in your child is to teach him to be friendly. “The simple act of offering a warm greeting for a returning family member, a neighbor, or a cashier at the grocery store spreads a bit of kindness and shows our kids that other people deserve respect,” writes Dr. Kennedy-Moore in Psychology Today.
4. Role play and read together. Role play can teach a child a lot of things including empathy. When playing with dolls, for example, you can pretend that one is refusing to share with another. Ask your child how the “wronged” doll feels and possible ways that the problem can be fixed. It’s a good exercise on trying to put oneself in someone else’s shoes.
Books can do this as well. “Stories offer a compelling glimpse into another person’s thoughts and feelings. They can break down barriers by helping children understand and relate to people in circumstances different from their own,” says. Dr. Kennedy-Moore. While reading books together or watching movies, try talking about the characters and how they might be feeling or what they could be thinking. “This also helps children read nonverbal cues such as facial expressions and body movements and understand the types of reactions that are acceptable,” says Dr. Sack.
5. Model empathy Our actions can often times speak louder than our words, especially to our children. They learn from seeing how we live our lives and interact with other people. You can also model empathy by expressing concern for other people or trying out ways to make someone else’s day brighter. From your example, he’ll learn how to manage his own anger and other intense emotions especially those directed towards others. 6. Provide opportunities to care for other people. Volunteering for a meaningful cause or simply helping out a neighbor in need is key to developing a child's ability to act on empathetic feelings, says Dr. Padilla Walker. If your child is old enough, look for opportunities around your neighborhood for you and your kid to volunteer or help out. It creates a good opportunity to learn about gratitude, too.