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What is empathy?

Empathy is simply defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of others.  Empathy allows us to respond in a calm way to what others are experiencing.

Why is empathy important?

Empathy allows us to respond in a way that takes into account how another person may be feeling.  Empathy is in full-effect when a child seeks help for another child who is being bullied, even if it means going against his or her friends.  Another example is when you are on an airplane and there is a baby crying.  Using empathy allows you to think about how stressed or tired or worried that baby’s caregiver might be instead of becoming irritable.

How do we teach empathy to children?


Understand your emotions first

Take the time to figure out what you are feeling and why.  For example, many times we can feel and act angry when what is really going on is that we are scared or sad or tired.  We often have go-to emotion that we use instead of figuring out our real feelings.

By figuring out your emotions, you can share them, when appropriate, with your children as well as model how to cope with emotions in a healthy way.

Regulate your own emotions

Being in charge of our emotions instead of letting our emotions be in charge of us is difficult.  However, if we can take control, we are modeling good emotional regulation for our children.

There are many ways to gain more control of how we feel.  Talking to a friend, journaling, or taking a walk are all good ways to decompress and get a better handle on our feelings.  Meditation is great for helping us to be less reactive to stressors in our world.

Model the behavior that you want your child to use

empathyYou are your child’s #1 influence.  Your child is looking to you to understand how to navigate his or her world.  You are a walking, talking guide to your child on what to say and do.  Your child is also copying how and when you say and do things.  It is important for you to demonstrate how to handle situations.

If you get cut off in traffic, how do you respond?  Do you use some choice words and become visibly angry?  Do you think that maybe that driver is having a bad day or is stressed out?  Stopping and saying out loud, “Wow!  That was scary.  I hope that other driver is okay,” shows your child to think about what the other person is experiencing.  You could even have a conversation about where your child thinks that person is headed so fast such as maybe the other driver is trying to get to a loved one in the hospital or is worried that he or she will be fired from her job for being late.

Teach your children how to understand and regulate his or her own emotions

The more your child understands what he is feeling, the more he can express feelings, cope with feelings in a healthy way, and understand the feelings of others.

empathyHere are some ways to teach your child how to understand and regulate his or her own emotions:

  • Model healthy understanding and regulation of your own emotions.
  • Understand that your child might be showing one emotion, such as anger, but experiencing a different feeling such as sadness.
  • Point out people in movies or TV shows who are expressing their emotions in a difficult way as well as those that seem to be struggling.  Ask your child what a character who is struggling could try to do differently.
  • Regularly ask your child how different situations make him or her feel.  For example, ask your child how he or she feels about a current even and why he or she feels that way.
  • Praise your child for sharing emotions in an appropriate way.
  • For younger children, such as toddlers and preschoolers, help them label their emotions.  For example, if your 3 year-old is making a fist a his sister, get down on his level, and say, “It looks like you are mad that she took your doll.”  Just by helping a child identify what he or she is feeling, you are helping to develop the ability to understand and appropriately express emotions.
  • Try to catch the times that your child is attempting to express emotions or is trying to stay calm.  Praise those baby steps towards emotional regulation.  Try to stay in the moment with your child when he or she is showing emotions appropriately.  Offer choices, such as going to her room to calm down, taking a walk together, listening to music, etc.

Book recommendation

  • A great book for understanding the importance of empathy and how to teach it to your children is The One Rule For Boys by Dr. Max Wachtel.  This book is a very helpful resource for teaching empathy to both boys and girls.  Dr. Wachtel has worked with many boys and men in the legal system.  Based on his work as well as examining several generations of psychological, educational, and parenting research, Dr. Watchel has concluded that teaching boys to express their feelings as well as understand the feelings of others, will help boys to grow into men who are be better leaders, parents, partners, and people.
  • The One Rule For Boys shows how to teach empathy through every day family life experiences.

If you feel that your child is struggling with behavior or managing emotions, you may want to consider consulting with a therapist.  Hope Springs offers skilled, caring therapists.

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