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Teaching Empathy to Children

We teach children a lot about how to get along with others, but sometimes we forget to talk about the secret ingredient for healthy relationships – empathy!  Empathy is a complex idea to understand and practice as an adult, and putting it into simple words for younger children to comprehend can be even more difficult.

What even is empathy, anyway?

Empathy is our ability to recognize the feelings other people experience and to emotionally join them in that painful moment - not to fix it or dismiss it.  

Why is empathy important?

Empathy is important for both individuals and societies.  When we are aware of how others feel, it helps us to identify our own emotions.  As a society, understanding our feelings and the feelings of others builds connections and makes us more inclined to help others.  This is the reason humankind has managed to survive for so long.

Closer to home, in our relationships with our family members and friends, it is our sense of empathy that helps us to detect that something is wrong even though someone is saying everything is “fine.”  And, it is also what makes our relationships rewarding, so that when someone we love or care about succeeds or has exciting news – we can feel their excitement and happiness.  Just the same, sharing our happiness with others enhances our own joy!

So how to do we teach it to others?

A common method that adults use to build empathy in their children is remind them to "imagine being in their shoes."  But expanding on this idea can help a child really become curious about other people's internal world.  Asking your child follow-up questions helps them to explore their preconceived ideas about themselves or others.

For example, if your child remarks on a homeless person being "gross," instead of reacting in anger or simply telling them to "be nice," you could gently ask them to explore with you the idea about what it would be like for a person who didn't have a nice, warm home to go to.  You could encourage them to think about how hard it would be to go without a shower or a meal for a long time.  You could ask them what they would do to stay warm and dry during a rain or snow storm.  You can encourage your child to think more deeply by asking them questions and engaging them in a non-judgmental dialogue.  

Another example of how to be empathetic to someone you know personally is demonstrated in the video below.

Author Brene Brown put together an excellent video about empathy.  It's a cartoon, and it may be appropriate to watch with some children.  This can also be a way to engage your child in dialogue about being empathetic to others.  

Watch it below and consider how you can best engage your child in meaningful dialogues - or simply just as a refresher for yourself about how to build more meaningful connections to others.

What is the best way to ease someone's pain and suffering? In this beautifully animated RSA Short, Dr Brené Brown reminds us that we can only create a genuine empathic connection if we are brave enough to really get in touch with our own fragilities.