Can you teach empathy? I get this question a lot from friends, parents, and parents of patients. The answer is not that simple.
Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Some kids just seem to be born more empathetic than others. These kids are the ones who cry because someone else is crying, immediately run over to a friend who has fallen to see if they are okay, and naturally appear more sensitive to others’ emotions. Other kids need to be taught to be empathetic. Here are some tips:
Be a good role model by talking about feelings: It is important for parents to role model talking with “feeling words”. Saying things such as “I feel frustrated that I have to sit in traffic” or “I feel happy that we can go get ice cream together” helps to encourage feeling words in your child. You may need to help them label their emotions as well with statements such as, “I see you are angry that your sister took your toy”. Consistently modeling the feeling words will help them label their own feelings.
After disagreements, discuss the specific feelings that led to the conflict: Kids need to know that everyone has disagreements, but it is important that you discuss the disagreement in a composed manner. When everyone has calmed down, have a discussion about what the other person may have been feeling. “I know that you were feeling frustrated with your sister, but how do you think she felt when you hit her?”
Teach about nonverbal cues: Practice with your child what it looks like to make a “mad face” or a “surprised face”. You can also do this by reading books, watching TV together or spotting others on the playground and guessing what they are feeling based on their nonverbal cues. “Does that boy look scared? How do we know he looks scared? Can you think of why he may be scared?”
Pay attention to your child’s social life: Asking specific questions about your child’s day provides opportunities for them to tell you about their social interactions and leads to discussion of feeling words “What did you and Molly do on the playground today? How did you feel when you were on the slide?”
Involve your child in acts of kindness: When children are involved in the activities (instead of just hearing about them), it facilitates the teaching of empathy. “Why don’t you help me take this soup to Mrs. Smith next door, she isn’t feeling well today.”
Teaching empathy is not easy to do, but it is possible. Michele Borba, author of the book Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World, agrees that empathy is not something that is taught through lecturing. In this book she depicts several cases that show empathy being part of all aspects of life on a regular basis. It is certainly a worthwhile read for anyone looking to learn more about empathy!