Showing empathy is an important aspect of life. And as a parent, one of the best things you can pass on to your kids is relational wisdom. This important human trait helps ensure your kids grow up to be kind, respectful, and sensitive to other people’s differences and experiences. But you may be wondering, how do you even instill this abstract characteristic with your children? And how do you know they’re working?
You’d be surprised to know that kids have a natural capacity for empathy, but teaching them to become empathetic naturally and sincerely can be a challenge in itself. Empathy has so many practical uses in adult life, and your child will come across many acts of empathy throughout their life, be it in daily life, an emergency, or rehabilitation for heroin abuse.
Whatever situation your kid is put in, they will be able to listen without judgment, put themselves in other people’s shoes, perform selfless acts of kindness and compassion, and understand other people’s motivations behind their actions and decisions.
While there are no specific steps to teach empathy, there are things you can do to nurture this important trait, so your child carries it into adulthood.
Know the early signs of empathy
First things first, it’s important to identify what authentic empathy is before you can be confident to teach it to your kids. Empathy is a complex, nuanced trait with a broad range of emotional ranges, and it’s often confused with sympathy, compassion, or even pity. Parents should know these things are different.
The early signs of empathy include awareness of one’s different feelings and emotions and sensitivity to others’ feelings and emotions. For example, a kid pats a fellow kid’s back after he drops his ice cream or a kid consoling a playmate who tripped in the playground. If your kid behaves or comforts you when you’re showing subtle signs of tiredness or emotional distress, that’s a good sign that your kid has a strong capacity to place oneself in another’s position.
Teach your child self-soothing
There are many ways to teach empathy, but one of the best ways is to encourage your child to self-soothe. Did you know that babies can learn to self-soothe as early as three to six months? You can start by soothing your child when they cry, have trouble sleeping, or get irritated. This way, your kid will mimic the action, first by comforting himself. Eventually, they will learn to comfort others. You can also try different activities, from drawing books, expressive photographs, and guessing emotions games as they grow older.
Acknowledge acts of empathy repeatedly
Before a trait becomes a behavior in toddlers, it would require repeated acknowledgment. It’s important to give your kids an opportunity to show and practice this trait. It could be as simple as sharing toys or food with siblings, reacting to an incident of bullying in school or sharing thoughts about someone from a different background.
Talk about it
One way to know if your child understands different human emotions and feelings is to keep an open dialogue about them. For example, if your kid talks about a classmate crying at school, keep the conversation flowing by asking them what they thought of the experience. Why did they think the kid cried? And what do they think they should do in that situation?
Keep in mind that there’s no wrong answer here. If you feel like your kid lacks understanding of the situation, try to ask questions instead until they figure out the best possible answer instead of dictating it to them. And, of course, avoid attaching feelings and emotions to gender (i.e., boys don’t cry, only girls can be emotionally intelligent).
Be a role model
Children pick up from their parents, so if you’re a naturally empathetic person, there’s a high chance your kids will become one, too. If you’re not confident about your empathy, you can turn this into a personal goal or project where you and your kid are learning different ways to show empathy. Make it a habit to verbalize your feelings and emotions and encourage your kids to do the same.
It’s important to know that teaching empathy is a gradual process, but as a parent, it’s your job to lay the foundations as early as possible. By teaching your kid to become more empathetic, they will grow up to be more understanding and more self-aware. They can become more equipped to build meaningful relationships that they can treasure for years.