“Empathy is a skill that experts from many disciplines have deemed important for personal, relationship and career success,” psychiatrist David Sack writes in Huffington Post. “People who are empathic tend to have better social interactions, academic performance and accomplishments at work than others.”
One way parents can teach empathy to a child is by modeling it, says Laura Padilla Walker, associate director of Brigham Young University’s School of Family Life. Our actions speak louder than words, especially to our children. We have to show our kids that we are capable of empathy not just towards other people but to them as well.
But do we really know what empathy looks like? Would we recognize it in our everyday parenting? In a beautifully animated video featured by TED-Ed, renowned research professor, speaker, and best-selling author Brené Brown sheds light on what empathy looks and feels like -- and how it can make us better parents.
Brown begins by stating the difference between empathy and sympathy. The former "fuels connection" while the latter "drives disconnection. Empathy is connecting with other people on an emotional level. And, it isn't that easy of a choice to make because as Brown puts it, “In order to connect with you, I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling.” Empathy shines when we are able to respond lovingly to a person who is hurt or is in pain, and is reaching to us for comfort.
Citing the work of nursing scholar Theresa Wiseman who studied diverse professions where empathy was relevant, Brown shared the four key qualities of empathy:
1. Seeing from another person’s perspective We need to “recognize [another person’s] perspective as their truth,” says Brown. This is an important quality to take to heart, especially for parents. Empathy is being able to see from another person's eyes, which brings us to the next quality.
2. Keeping judgment out of the picture Trying not to judge others is not easy, Brown acknowledges, especially "when we enjoy it as much as most of us do." However, empathy is all about connecting with other people especially with their pain. Being judgmental makes that difficult.
3. Recognizing emotion in other people When parents are busy or in the middle of important work, it can be easy to disregard a child’s feelings. But, empathy requires that we recognize that others have feelings that can differ from what we’re feeling at the moment.
4. Communicating our understanding of another’s feelings We show that we understand and can connect to another person’s feeling through our words and our actions. When we reach out and offer a hug to a pained person, we are already showing empathy.
A concrete example of how we fail to show empathy is when we say the words “at least” in reply to a person who is telling us about a painful experience. Brown provides the examples below. You might recognize a few.
A friend: “I had a miscarriage.” Reply that lacks in empathy: “At least you know you can get pregnant.”
“I think my marriage is falling apart.” Reply that lacks in empathy: “At least you have a marriage.”
“John is getting kicked out of school.” Reply that lacks in empathy: “At least Sarah is an A student”
So what do we say? “The truth is, rarely can a response make something better,” says Brown. “What makes something better is connection.” Listening to the other person and a hug are sometimes all it takes to show empathy to a loved one. Soothing your child when she’s crying or trying to make things better when she’s upset is enough to show her what empathy is like. And by doing so, you’re already on your way to raising an empathetic child.