Tips for Cultivating Empathy in Children

Children are not necessarily born with the ability to be compassionate and to display empathy toward others, so often those qualities need to be taught and modeled.  Conscious parenting will require dedicating the time, patience and effort to that task, as the process of acquiring these traits takes place in various stages throughout childhood and beyond.  As the ability to be empathetic develops in a child, it keeps him connected to others and enhances both the parent’s and the child’s emotional health.

Following are 10 tips that parents and other caretakers can use to effectively teach empathy to their children.

1.  Teach them the language of empathy:

In an age appropriate manner, talk about and practice words and phrases such as I’m sorry, thank you, I forgive you, I understand how you feel, and put yourself in his place. Teach your child to use words like hurt feelings, happy, sad, mad and angry.  They may not understand the full meaning, but it is a first step.

2.  Parents need to be role models:

Modeling is an important way to teach empathy to your children.  When children see their parents show empathy, compassion and finally, forgiveness, they will see that this makes parents happy.  They will then begin to get the idea.  At this point, they need parent’s continual guidance and support until they are able to show empathy and act upon those feelings on their own.

3. Awareness of other’s feelings:

It takes time and practice for children to learn to become aware of how others feel.  Children have to understand something about their own thoughts and feelings and also about other’s feelings so they can negotiate a solution to a conflict without just reacting irrationally to the situation.  The stage of brain development seems to dictate how well they can handle this.

4. Listen to your children:

Parents need to listen intently and respect all their children’s thoughts and feelings.  This is a tall order, but parents need to honor and respect the uniqueness of each child.  When your child is having a melt down and needs to have some quiet time, let them know that when you feel the way he does, you need some rest too.  Recognize and verbalize your child’s needs. They need to know that everyone experiences the same feelings.

5. Expose your child to diversity and helping others:

From time to time give your child an opportunity to see the suffering and misfortune of others.  Give them the experience of associating with the disabled, different ethnic groups and the disadvantaged.  Take them with you to a food bank, a shelter, or any other place where they can do something to help another.

6. Be observant:

When you notice your child sharing something or saying a kind word to their friend, tell him he did a nice thing.  Talk about the feelings of both children.  How did this action make him feel?  How does he think the other child felt and why?

7.  Explain to your child how to distance himself during a conflict:

If your child is experiencing a conflict with another child or adult, try to teach him the technique of pulling back or distancing himself from the situation. By looking at the big picture, he’s more likely to see other possible solutions to the problem.  This is much better than just reacting.  Using this method, children are much more likely to begin understanding their own feelings, in addition to being able to empathize with other’s feelings and viewpoint.

8. Play “feelings” games:

One simple game is for you and your child to observe people in parks, the street or wherever you are.  Talk about how you think the people are feeling and why.  Also, as you read with your child, talk about the emotions the characters in the book might be feeling.  Empathy keeps us from feeling selfish.

9.  Practice what you preach:

If you, the parents, tell your children how unkind words and actions can hurt, and then speak rudely or sarcastically to your mate or others, you are sending the wrong message.  If you are guilty of this, apologize to the offended person in front of your child in a sincere way. It makes a remarkable impression on children.

10. Use praise appropriately:

Be diligent in praising your child when he is empathetic, but observe limits.  When a child begins to expect praise for every small act of kindness or empathy, it promotes a self-centered attitude and interferes with his sense of considering the needs of others.

Teaching children how to feel empathy can take time and patience. Some children naturally absorb the notion of understanding other’s feelings as they mature, yet all children need parental modeling and other techniques to be able to first feel empathy. This leads to developing the capacity to act with compassion, and eventually to the ability to forgive.

About Marion Witte

Marion Witte was born and raised on a farm on the prairies of North Dakota. It was there that she acquired her Midwestern work ethic and her philosophy of helping others. Marion enjoyed a successful career as an entrepreneur, and upon selling her various business interests she began pursuing a life of philanthropy. She is passionate and outspoken about the need for radical changes in the way we view children and parenting. Her memoir “Little Madhouse on the Prairie” relays the story of her life, and it is the basis of her commitment to this work. She founded and manages the Angel Heart Foundation and its sister organizations “Next Generation Parenting” and “Brave New Leaders.”

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