Posted on: 20.05.2015.
Author: Ana G
Image courtesy of pixabay.com, licensed under CC0 1.0
Empathy is one of the most positive character traits a person can have. It means having the ability to see things from another person’s perspective and to not only understand their feelings but to share them as well. Most crucially, it means responding to how someone feels with compassion regardless of how you are feeling.
As a parent, you want to raise a child who is empathetic, compassionate and kind. Like nearly anything else, however, such traits aren’t innate. They are learned, and parents are kids’ first teachers and role models. To raise an emotionally intelligent child – one whose kindness is motivated by empathy – a proactive approach is a must.
Having empathy doesn’t just mean you’re a nice person. It’s a character trait that pays all kinds of benefits throughout a person’s life. From avoiding bullying to having better relationships, being empathetic pays off in many ways starting in a child’s earliest years. An empathetic toddler understands that hitting someone on the playground hurts them both physically and emotionally. An empathetic teenager considers the impact their mean words will have on a classmate. In short, an empathetic kid realizes how their behavior affects others and strives to be kind and compassionate.
''Siblings'' by Travis Swan is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
A 2014 study that was published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry determined that kids who lack basic empathetic traits by age three, including showing remorse and appropriately responding to affection, may go on to have behavioral problems in adulthood. Fortunately, parents can do a lot in terms of raising an empathetic child.
When it comes to raising an empathetic child, it’s amazing what a difference even the smallest, seemingly simplest efforts can do. All people are born with the capacity for empathy, but the way in which they are raised ultimately determines whether they become an empathetic person or not. As a parent, you must take a proactive approach in teaching your child to empathize with others and to express themselves in socially appropriate ways. These strategies are sure to make a big difference:
You know the old adage about treating others as you’d like to be treated? It works both ways. If you want your child to be a compassionate, kind, empathetic person, the first step is to behave that way toward them.
Doesn’t every parent strive to be kind and compassionate to their children? Absolutely, but sometimes our best intentions result in less-than-empathetic parenting. For example, parents often worry about raising resilient, tough kids. When their child stubs their toe or is otherwise slightly injured, they may admonish their little one not to cry or to act like a big boy or girl. Instead of reacting to your child’s behavior like this, begin by showing empathy and compassion. Put yourself in your little one’s shoes to understand why they are upset, whether it’s due to an emotional or physical incident. Later, after showing compassion, you can impart lessons about dusting themselves off and getting back up again.
Another aspect of showing compassion for your kid is by regularly acknowledging that all feelings are okay. What matters is the way in which those feelings are managed. Don’t tell your child that the way they are feeling is inappropriate. Rather, acknowledge how they are feeling and then provide guidance about how to react appropriately. By consistently doing this, you will show your child that they are worthy of empathy and compassion, and they are more likely to possess these traits too.
Empathetic people are in touch with their own feelings. As a parent, then, you should make it a priority to help your child identify various emotions, and encourage them to talk about their feelings regularly.
Early on, make regular use of basic feeling words like sad and happy when speaking to your child. As your child grows, start adding more complex emotions into the mix. Make a point of asking how your child is feeling on a regular basis, and make sure to tell them how you are feeling regularly too. By making emotions and feelings a routine topic of conversation, you will raise a child who is more likely to be in touch with theirs.
A great way to drive home the importance of understanding other people’s feelings is by making feelings flashcards. Comb through magazines and other materials for photos of people expressing various emotions. Stick with basic emotions for young kids, and incorporate more nuanced ones for older ones. Tape the photos to index cards, and write the corresponding emotion or feeling on the reverse side. Show each card to your child and ask them to guess how the person is feeling. Take it one step further by asking your child to demonstrate or act out the emotion or feeling displayed on the card.
Most kids are raised to understand that physically hurting others is wrong. All too often, though, parents fail to drive home how hurtful words can be. Understanding this is a crucial part of becoming an empathetic person, and there are a few experiments you can do to impart this lesson to your child in a memorable way.
Rice Consciousness experiment, inspired by Dr Masaru Emoto. Video courtesy of John Vincent via YouTube.
Developed by Dr. Masaru Emoto, the rice experiment visually demonstrates the power of positive and negative words. You will need two small glass jars with lids, a permanent marker and enough rice to fill both jars.
Label one jar with negative words and phrases like “I hate you” and “you are stupid.” Label the other with positive words and phrases like “I love you” and “you are great.” Fill each jar with rice, and securely screw on each lid.
Place each jar in separate places in the home. Instruct everyone in the house to say the positive or negative words and phrases whenever they pass the appropriate jar. Do this for a period of about six weeks. At that point, have your child look at the rice in each jar. Repeat this every week until there is a pronounced change. The rice in the negative jar will appear moldy and rotten while the rice in the positive jar will look mostly fresh and new.
Ask your child why they think the rice in the negative jar went bad while the rice in the other jar stayed good. Also, ask them if they now believe that positive and negative words do affect others. Instruct them to explain their answers.
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Another step in instilling empathy in your child is teaching them how to properly deal with uncomfortable emotions. To do this, begin by explaining to your child that they can act differently than they feel. For instance, they may feel cranky and unwilling to help a friend, but they can still go ahead and do it.
Basically, you want to teach your kid not to take out their feelings on others. Emphasize the importance of always treating others with kindness and respect. Explain that when their emotions get the better of them, there are things they can do to calm down, reflect on the situation and react in a calm, constructive way. Teach your child some clear, effective strategies for doing this. Simply going to a quiet area and sitting calmly often does the trick. A self-imposed time-out works wonders too. The main gist of it is to think before you act – or react – and this trait will serve your child well for the rest of their life.
It’s not easy to understand other people’s feelings when you view them as “others.” Empathy is all about having the ability to step into other people’s shoes. There’s more to it than that, though. It’s also about responding constructively and appropriately to the way others are feeling. One way to teach this is by pointing out characters in TV shows, movies and books and asking your child how they are probably feeling.
To raise an empathetic, compassionate child, be compassionate and empathetic yourself. Make a point of demonstrating these traits often. When you do something in response to how another person is feeling – for instance, by lending a helping hand – explain your actions to your child. Show your child that you are willing to help others by performing random acts of kindness and compassion whenever possible. Get your child in on the act by having them participate in age-appropriate volunteer activities like helping out at a nursing home or participating in a charity walk or run.
Also, demonstrate your own self-discipline. Show your child how you cope with various emotions constructively. When something upsets you – for instance, another driver on the road – explain that you are angry but that perhaps the other person is having a bad day, so you will give them the benefit of the doubt. Show your child that even when you are upset, you work to stay calm, to process your feelings and to react in a positive way.
Raising a child who cares is a worthy goal, and it’s one that any parent can achieve. Because you’re your child’s first and most influential teacher, the steps you take now can pave the way for a lifetime of compassionate, empathetic living. The return on this very simple investment will be considerable, and it’s never too early to start.
By possessing empathy, your child will be more in touch with their feelings and will in turn use them to make better decisions. They will be able to understand and connect with others more easily and even manage stress more effectively. Raising your child to be empathetic can ward off behavioral issues down the road and set the stage for a lifetime of success and happiness.