Joshua is four years old. He witnesses his preschool classmate Xavier being teased by other kids and watches as Xavier begins to cry. As Joshua’s parent, what do you hope his response will be?
As a parent, I would expect Joshua to demonstrate empathy by showing compassion to Xavier’s distress. But how realistic is it to expect a young child to respond at this capacity?
Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. It helps distinguish one’s own feelings from the feelings of others, as well as regulate our emotional responses.
According to research conducted by the University of Miami, School of Medicine, empathy is not a fixed trait and can be encouraged and cultivated. But it does take time to develop.
My now-teenage-son Joshua and I brainstormed which lessons in empathy from his early childhood impacted him most. These experiences encouraged empathetic attitudes and behaviors while teaching him how to maintain his personal boundaries.
Give Your Child Consistent Emotional and Mental Support.
Children are more likely to develop a sense of empathy when their own needs are consistently being met at home. I made certain to always address my child’s needs in a healthy manner and teach him to cope with negative emotions by using simple problem solving exercises.
Respect Your Child as Being His/Her Own Person.
This opens up discussions about your child’s unique feelings and thoughts as well as help encourage him to accept those of others. I helped my son understand that different people can respond to the same situation in different ways.
For example, I wouldn’t be bothered if he ate the last cupcake without asking; while he would feel angry if his friend did the same to him. He learned that while something might greatly upset him, that same thing could have no effect on someone else; but both feelings and thoughts are equally valid and should be respected.
Discuss the Perspectives of Others.
Teach your child that everyone acts the way they do based on their own unique needs, experiences, and sensitivities.
When my son was upset that his friend refused to share his toys, we discussed the possibility that perhaps he allowed another child to play with them in the past, only to get them back damaged; leaving him protective of his belongings. This helped my son understand that there may be a “story” behind a person’s choices and their actions should not be taken personally.
Help Your Child Recognize What She has in Common with Others.
Understandably, kids (as well as adults) are more likely to feel empathy for those similar to them.
For example, if your child is annoyed with a playmate who is laughing too loud, remind her of times when she too found something so incredibly funny that it made her laugh uncontrollably at the top of her lungs.
Role-Play with Your Child.
Sometimes role-playing can be more effective than asking a child, “How would you feel if…” Use toys to act out challenging situations and encourage your child to demonstrate what the person experiencing the difficulty might be feeling.
Teach Your Child that it’s Difficult for a Calm Person to Understand What the Upset Person is Going Through.
When people are feeling calm, it’s easy to underestimate the feelings of someone who is upset. When your child is upset about something, take the opportunity to point out that this is probably how his friend felt when something similar happened several days ago.
Discuss how Your Child’s Feelings can Affect Their Behavior.
Discuss the possible connection between your child being scolded by his teacher for speaking out, and when he wasn’t kind to his friend a few moments later. This will bring awareness to feeling/behavior relationship.
Help Kids Develop a Sense Of Right and Wrong Based on Internal Senses, Not on Rewards or Punishments.
Kids are more likely to develop an internal sense of right and wrong if they are raised with an approach that focus on reasonable explanations and moral consequences, as opposed to receiving material rewards and harsh punishments.
Be A Model For How To Feel Compassion For Others.
I am a firm believer that children learn best by example. When we treat others with compassion while maintaining our personal boundaries, our children notice and are more likely to emulate our acts of caring and self respect!