Posted on: 10.08.2022.
Empathy is defined as the ability to recognize and understand the emotions of others. When a child experiences empathy it means that they understand how the other person feels in a particular situation and that they can imagine how they would feel if they were in the same situation. It is important to note that empathy is closely related to the awareness of one's own emotional states. In other words, the more aware a child is of their own emotional states, the more accurately they will recognize others' emotions.
The first step in the experience of empathy is recognizing the emotional state of the other person, i.e., recognizing non-verbal expressions of emotions such as facial expressions, gestures and tone of voice. Based on this information, children recognize how the other person feels and associate them with everything that is expressed in words. Once a child has successfully recognized the emotional state of the other person, it can be placed in their perspective and then determine how they can react in order to aid the other person.
Like any other skill, empathy can be learned and practiced, and parents play a significant role in this.
The precursors of empathy can be noticed even in the first days of life when a child reacts by crying to the cries of another child. At the age of three to four, children can understand that different feelings exist, and that everyone has them. They can recognize when someone feels bad and empathize spontaneously with them. By developing vocabulary, preschool children are more adept at talking and discussing their own and others' feelings and situations that provoke those feelings. The ability to take another person's perspective and help the person who feels unwell also emerges.
What makes empathy so important?
Empathy is a skill that is extremely important for healthy emotional and moral development. Empathetic children are more successful and satisfied at school, have more friendly relationships that are satisfactory and are generally better accepted by their peers. Also, empathetic children are less prone to violent behaviour because they can more easily recognize how the other person feels and make an adequate decision about how to react to that feeling.
How can parents encourage the development of empathy?
It is important to talk with children about feelings – which feelings they know, which exist and what are non-verbal indicators of a certain feeling.
A child can observe photographs or drawings of facial expressions and just perform them in front of a mirror and name them.
While reading stories to a child or watching cartoons, you can ask the child how the character feels and why.
When you are in a particular situation, it is important to talk to your child about how they feel or how another person feels. You can ask the child questions that will help them express their feelings openly in the current situation or describe how other people feel, e.g., “Marco is sad because he forgot his favourite toy.”
You can also teach your child empathy through hypothetical situations. Ask the child how they would feel if someone took their toy or how their friend would feel if someone took their toy, and how they could be helped to feel better. Give your child a chance to make their own suggestions.
When a child is sad, scared, or angry, it is important to let them express how they feel without giving them a comforting answer like “It's all right” or “You don't need to be afraid.”
Finally, the child learns about emotions and empathy by observing parents. It is important that you openly express your feelings towards the child because by verbalizing your own emotional states, you encourage children to do the same – to recognize and name their own emotions, but also to recognize and respond to the emotions of others. Be a role model for the child, actively listen to them and show empathy for them to learn the same behaviour.
Marica Marasović, MSc, Centre for Mental Health MBM