Raising Kind Children

What is empathy?

Empathy, or the ability to understand and relate or identify with how another person is feeling, sounds like it could be difficult to explain to a child, but it’s not as complicated as you might think! While it takes intentional nurturing, empathy is something that will greatly improve your child’s ability to understand and connect with the people around them. 

Why does empathy (and emotional intelligence) matter?

Empathy is our route to understanding the people around us. 

When we can picture ourselves in someone else’s “shoes,” and feel what they feel, we start to know them better. And when we understand people better, we tend to be more sympathetic, kinder people.  In learning empathy, your child can strengthen their connection with the people around them. Some of the ways empathy improves our lives include: 

Methods to teach your children empathy: 

So how do you go about intentionally raising your child to be empathetic? Here are a few tools: 

Address their emotional needs

When you take time to address your child’s emotional needs, they are learning that their emotions are valuable and important, and should be listened to. Note: this doesn’t always mean giving your child what they seem to want in a highly emotional moment. If your child is having a melt down, addressing their emotional needs isn’t just giving them something to calm them down in the moment. For example, if your child is throwing a tantrum because they don’t want to go to school, addressing their needs and validating their feelings doesn’t mean you tell them they can skip school that day. Instead it means letting them know you see they are upset, and taking time to talk to them and get to the root of why they are feeling that way. The issue at the root is then the emotional need that needs to be addressed.

Guide them through managing negative emotions 

Even for adults, “negative” emotions (sadness, anger, frustration, fear, etc.) can be overwhelming and scary. So imagine how it is for kids, experiencing these big emotions for the first time! When we help guide our kids through big, overwhelming emotions we teach them a process for making sense of their own emotions. And when they understand that process within themselves, they can more easily see it in others. 

Use “how would you feel if…” (relate it back to them at first):

Kids will relate to others better if they can understand how they would feel in that situation. When they are having a conflict with a friend or sibling or classmate, after taking the time to listen and validate your child’s feelings, ask them to consider the other side. Give some examples of why the other person might be behaving the way they are or what they may be feeling. Ask your child “how would you feel if…” and see if they are able to imagine themselves in the other person’s shoes.   

Teach them to identify their feelings

If they gain emotional literacy and can identify their own feelings, they will more easily be able to recognize strong emotions in others, and not only understand them, but be more likely to feel compassion for others. This also means teaching them non-verbal emotional cues! Social cues can be slight and difficult to pick up on if you aren’t aware of how they may appear. Let your child know that sometimes our feelings show through our body language, our facial expressions, the way we sound. 

Give them stories that feature empathy: 

Storytelling is one of the most powerful tools for teaching and learning that we have! And luckily, lots of children’s book authors want to help you teach your children about empathy. Check out this list of books that model empathy and kindness for kids. 

Lindsay N Sanner, LSCSW, RPT