The feeling of receiving a bear hug from your child when you're upset, or when they pick up toys to help you clean the room is wonderful.
You teach your children a lot of things, should you teach them empathy?
Often, children are unaware or don't care if their friends or elders are in need or upset. But when they are taught to understand and care about other people's feelings, their journey to a positive self-image, better relationships, and a better world starts.
Why teach empathy to children:
If we teach our children empathy, there will be fewer instances of bullying, inequality, and racism.
Yes! If your child has empathy they can recognize how others are feeling and that helps them in connecting with people, makes them better humans, and allows them to enjoy healthy and meaningful relationships in the future.
It is easier said than done; making children understand how someone else’s might be feeling, or what others point of view is challenging. Especially when you are raising children in a nuclear family or a child who feels entitled, to make them realize that the world doesn't revolve around them and that they should also be considerate of others is a hard lesson to teach.
Some kids appear more self-centered than others, and they may not understand the consequences of their actions; bullying is often an outcome of such non-empathetic behavior.
My child lacked empathy: I had a tough time raising my two children. My eldest son showed entitled behavior and lacked empathy. Being the eldest one, he garnered a fair share of affection and attention, slowly that turned into an entitlement to receive what belongs to him or what does not belong to him.
Things seemed to be fine until it started affecting the younger one. The younger one's personality started crushing with each of the intruding acts of his elder brother. He started feeling demoralized and suppressed. Initially we stayed clueless and only tried fixing the fight; we didn’t know what to do. Later, we had to take the help of a councilor for my younger one's emotional complications.
Though my eldest child is excellent in both academics and sports, when it comes to connecting with people, he fails. To him, no one matters other than him. His belief and what he wants take precedence.
Though he never realized that he was doing anything wrong. He needs something, he gets it, how does it matter what others feel or why they feel hurt; and this remained the problem, till date.– a mother shared her experience.
Role of empathy in child development:
Being inconsiderate to others feelings is considered as development issue and we don’t want our children to have that. The young mind is still developing and it is hard to make them understand that respecting others feelings is an act of empathy, but we cannot wait until they grow up. We know how difficult it is to change behaviors once established.
That’s’ why we need to steer them in the right direction from the beginning. Early start seems easier than late.
How to build empathy in children?
1-Set a positive example and create a healthy home environment:
“The best way to teach is to model behavior.” Act the way you want your children to behave. Respect their feelings, the way they feel, and how they feel. Show them you care about who they are, what they enjoy, and help them learn to accept differences and cultivate relationships.
Empathizing with them helps them develop trusting and secure attachments. After all, children flourish in safe environments, where they feel safe, where they get emotional support, and where they see family and friends expressing themselves in a healthy way.
We can do so by modelling behavior, storytelling, communication, playing, emotion coaching, with a whole lot of patience.
2-Expressing emotions in words:
The basis of empathy is identifying emotions and feelings. Identifying and naming the big emotions helps them cultivate self-awareness. They learn to express what they need and verbalize the emotions they feel and later they can recognize them in others as well.
Help them identify emotions by asking questions like:
Are you feeling upset? Do you feel sad, when mommy goes to the office? Was your friend upset when her candy fell? Is your brother happy that you shared your chocolate with him? Are you angry with your friend for not playing with you?
This gives a peep inside their big emotions; they should know that feelings need to be acknowledged and addressed.
3-Give them opportunities to connect:
Social interactions improve child confidence and empathetic learning. Provide them opportunity to bond with family and friends. When children grow up in a nurturing environment, they learn to value relationships and feelings and they do not feel alienated later in life.
Therefore, you should give children the opportunity to do some community service, or to help people in need, or to get involved in charity work.
4-Teach them; how to handle conflict:
Sadly, we don't learn or teach how to deal with conflict early in life, despite conflict being an integral part of life. But we can get past our own parental horror and look closer and help our children learn to resolve their own situations and conflicts.
Next time your child comes after a fight, instead of picking sides or asking your child to stop playing or ignoring the other child. Ask them to find out what went wrong and how to resolve the situation. Young minds need to learn how to deal with differences in opinions and also to understand the other point of view.
How to describe empathy to a child:
The play area provides ample opportunities for such teaching. You can have conversations with them.
How to ask to take turns on the slide. How would a child feel if you snatched her toy? Your friend will feel bad if you break his car.
Such sympathetic conversations bring in perspective and create a mental setup on how to deal with others. All this learning helps them prepare to cope when they come across conflicts later in their lives.
5-Guide them to understand nonverbal cues:
Early on, you might not expect young children to understand nonverbal cues. But as you gradually bring to their awareness that their actions might cause others harm, they begin to realize it.
Shouldn’t be laughing at other adversity.
Avoid making rude facial gestures to turn people down. Do not make fun when someone who seems to be upset or sad.
Figuring out when someone is feeling bad without them saying it, is hard. However, people who do understand make a big difference.
6-Accepting differences and diversity:
Having empathy is about showing compassion. Making children realize that they have their own thoughts, feelings, and goals; others have their own, which may be completely different from theirs.
We can also encourage children to think about the feelings of those who may be vulnerable, such as a child suffering some family difficulties or a child who is unpopular.
The objective is to teach children to avoid negative feelings, stereotypes, and prejudice; rather, to understand other people's hardships, challenges, situations, and vulnerabilities. To acknowledge that children in another community or country can have different beliefs, values, and opinions. And that way, we can reduce bullying, inequality, and racism.
However, comprehending others viewpoint, not judging, and understanding others feelings is hard; even difficult, for adults. We still struggle. Perhaps we weren't taught how to effectively do it. But we shouldn’t be doing the same to our children. It is our responsibility to raise children who can change society for the better. Who can say, “I want to understand how this feels to you”.
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