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Now Is the Right Time!
As a parent or someone in a parenting role, you play an essential role in helping your child develop empathy. There are intentional ways to grow a healthy parent-child relationship while growing your child’s capacity for empathy from the time they are born all the way through their teen years. Empathy is essential for your child to experience happy healthy relationships because it allows for emotional connection to others beginning early with family and friends and extending as they develop into successful school, work, social, and even romantic relationships.
Empathy is the way people effectively relate to one another. It’s the ability to perceive what others are feeling, process that information, and respond in a compassionate manner. The ability to understand what someone else is feeling requires that your child first be able to identify and recognize their own feelings, which is not always easy. It takes practice in self-awareness to grow this emotional literacy – a skill many adults struggle with as well. Medical professionals, businesses, and even politicians invest large sums in empathy trainings where they learn the foundational skill of identifying and labeling their own feelings so that they can go on to identify and understand the feelings of others and act compassionately. However, parents or those in a parenting role should not feel intimidated by the skills required for instilling empathy and identifying feelings. Empathy is a skill that can be taught and learned, and the parent-child relationship is the prime setting.
As a parent or someone in a parenting role, you can nurture, model, and teach the skills of empathy for your child. Starting at birth, parents interact with their infant by gazing into their eyes and making this first essential emotional connection. From there, parents spend daily face-to-face time with their child mirroring the sounds and expressions their child makes. This reflection of facial expressions and attitudes allows the child to recognize their feelings and uniqueness reflected in you. As your child develops and learns more about themself and their own feelings, through their interactions with you, you can help them develop the skill of reading, identifying, and understanding the feelings of others. Reading the feelings of others involves paying attention to their body language. In fact, children who can read nonverbal feelings tend to be more successful and emotionally stable.1
Once parents and children are able to notice and accurately identify their own feelings and the feelings of others, there is an opportunity to change what they do, change how they think, and change how they respond. Growing these healthy social and emotional habits leads to intentional behaviors that promote empathy and healthy relationships.
Your 5-10-year-old is going through significant developmental stages involving their social awareness and understanding of others’ viewpoints, and now is the right time to get them thinking about how others think and feel to grow their skills in empathy.
Your child’s ability to understand the experience of others and to make meaningful connections with people in their life is based on their capacity for empathy. You can support their developing empathy and enrich your relationship with your child as you embrace teachable moments to interact and cultivate an awareness of feelings.
Today, in the short term, building empathy can create
- greater opportunities for connection, cooperation, and enjoyment;
- feelings of trust, safety, and security;
- greater ability to develop healthy relationships with peers and adults including those who are different from your child; and
- a sense of wellbeing and motivation to engage.
Tomorrow, in the longer term, growing empathy in your child
- prepares them for success in school;
- builds skills in self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, healthy relationships, and responsible decision making;
- offers a greater sense of connectedness and responsibility to the larger community and world; and
- deepens family trust and intimacy.
Five Steps for Building Empathy
This five-step process helps you and your child build skills in empathy as well as other important life skills. The same process can be used to address other parenting issues as well (learn more about the process).
These steps are done best when you and your child are not tired or in a rush.
Intentional communication and actively building a healthy parenting relationship will support these steps
Step 1. Get Your Child Thinking by Getting Their Input
Children have a natural capacity for empathy, but like most skills their emerging empathy must be cultivated and encouraged. A good place to start is by asking questions and prompting their thinking. Asking children to reflect on their own feelings and then shifting your questions to how they perceive others might be feeling can help them realize things they have in common. Knowing how to pause in the midst of a big emotion in order to identify and name a feeling does not come naturally for most children; it requires gaining input, teaching/modeling, practice, support, and recognition.
Gaining your child’s input when drawing attention to how they are feeling and to the feelings of others supports your child’s interests and advances their learning. Asking questions prompts their thinking and helps them understand their own and others’ feelings, thoughts, and motivations. In gaining input from your child, you are
- supporting them to create a plan to pause and recognize/name their own feelings;
- showing the importance of complex skills involved with reflecting on others’ feelings and thoughts to better understand them;
- letting them know that you are open to talking about all kinds of people, relationships, and differences, even if those conversations may feel uncomfortable at first;
- making sure they know that you see the ways that people are different from each other and that you celebrate and respect those differences;
- countering any messages of exclusion your child might receive from peers or others; and
- deepening your ability to communicate with one another.
- Ask your child to make a plan for pausing in the heat of a big emotion. “What could you do when you are upset to help you remember to stop and name your feeling? Would you like to put your hand over your heart? Would you like to picture a stop sign in your mind? What would work best for you?”
- Ask your child to tune in and try to identify their feelings. You could ask them if their body is giving them any signals or hints as to what they are feeling. “What do you think you are feeling right now? How does your body feel? Hot in the face? Sick in your tummy?”
- You could also ask your child to rate the feeling on a scale of 1-10. “So, you are feeling frustrated. How frustrated are you on a scale from ‘1 – not very frustrated at all’ to ‘10 – the most frustrated you have ever felt?’” For younger children visual representations of the size of the feeling may help them think about this concept. For example, you might line up five stuffed animals from smallest to largest and ask which one best fits the size of their feeling.
- It is important to withhold judgment when your child expresses their feelings. You want to encourage that all feelings are valid, and empathy means believing how another person says they are feeling even if their feelings do not align with how you have felt during a similar experience. This can be challenging for parents when their child may have a big emotional reaction to something that seems small to an adult; validating their big feeling is the first step in learning to help them cope with their feelings and recognize the feelings of those around them.
- You will have to guide your child as they learn to identify their feelings, and there will be times that your child may confuse the words they choose with the feelings they feel. This is where a feelings chart is a helpful tool as you learn together the physical and facial expressions of different feelings. When talking about feelings with younger children, you may want to cut off the top row of feelings in the feelings chart as a place to start.
- If your child is at a loss for words, parents or those in a parenting role may describe what they see and label their child’s feeling, then ask if they are correct. For example “I see that your fists are clenched and your face is red. Are you feeling mad?” Many times children will correct parents if they mislabel their child’s feeling.
- Each time there is an opportunity, ask your child, “How do you think the other child feels? How do you know that? What is telling you that?” Remember that naming how someone else feels takes skill and practice. Misreading another’s feelings or thoughts is a natural part of learning to become more accurate. The more accurately your child can name their own feelings, the better they will be able to identify and relate to others’ feelings.
- For example, if your child is with others who are expressing feelings, help your child notice cues from other children’s faces and body language. For example, “Her face is red and she keeps turning away. Do you think she’s feeling frustrated? What else could that mean?” Explore interpretations – embarrassment? Anger? Then ask: “Which feels right?”
- When reading books with your child, discuss the characters’ thoughts and feelings. You might ask: “What do you notice about how she’s feeling?” and “What could she be thinking?” Leave plenty of quiet space for them to think of some ideas. Then, you might follow up with asking how they might feel or think in a similar situation to show that differences will exist.
- If your child is feeling unsure about how others are feeling or is buried in their own feelings, ask questions to help them. You could say,
- “What do you notice the other child is feeling?”
- “How do you know from their facial expression?”
- “What does their voice sound like? How are they standing or moving?”
- “How would you feel if you were in that situation?”
- Discuss noticing pain and what to do when you identify another’s pain. You might ask, “Can you think of a time when you felt pain? What did you experience? How did you feel?” Then, you might share ideas of what you can do when you notice another’s pain or suffering. How can your child communicate or show the person that they connect with or understand what they are feeling? Is there a small compassionate action they can take to show they care? Doing something — even if small — shows a child ways they can help and alleviates a little of another’s pain and their own pain as they take action.
Because children are curious about others, any social situations, news stories, or community problems can be opportunities to raise good questions about others’ thoughts and feelings for important practice with the complexities of empathic thinking.
Step 2. Teach New Skills by Interactive Modeling
Your reflective questions gaining input from your child will naturally lead into empathy skill building, perspective taking, appreciation of diversity, and respect for others. Teaching can help your child grow new skills and behaviors. Learning new skills and behaviors requires teaching/modeling, practice, support, and recognition.
Paying attention to how you identify, understand, and express your own feelings and behaviors is an important place to start. It gives your child practice accurately identifying feelings in someone else with whom they are close. You might ask yourself:
- “How do I experience challenging feelings like worry, fear, anger, or rejection?”
- “When do I tend to hide certain feelings or mask them with other easier-to-accept feelings like covering up hurt or anxiousness with an outward expression of anger?”
- “How do I let my child know and understand what I am feeling?”
Children first need to learn to empathize with you. But, the only way they can do that is if you are vulnerable and transparent with them about your own feelings. If you are like most, you have learned to hide or mask emotions that may challenge or upset others. So, raising your own self-awareness and actively working on how you communicate your feelings is key to helping your child develop this critical life skill. Your modeling of healthy feelings identification and expression is a powerful teacher. If you are experiencing a big emotion, it is healthy to give yourself a moment of quiet to stop and truly identify your own feeling; then you will be ready to articulate how you are feeling in an age appropriate, respectful manner to your child.
Learning about your child’s developmental milestones can help you better understand what they are experiencing during this time.2
- Five-year-olds are working on understanding rules and routines. Consistency helps them feel a sense of stability. They are discovering that pretend play is more fun when they involve others. It can become challenging for them to understand that there are different rules for different children in different settings. They continue to see from their own viewpoint and may struggle to see another’s perspective.
- Six-year-olds may be more apt to question your rules. They thrive on encouragement. They can become critical of others and need practice and experience with kindness and inclusion. Though they will notice obvious expressions of others’ feelings, they will not always understand why that feeling is occurring nor will they be accurate in observing more subtle feelings. They may sense your sadness or anxiety but not understand or be able to name why they are feeling the way they are.
- Seven-year-olds crave structure and may struggle with changes to the schedule. They may be moody and require reassurance from adults. Pleasing teachers and adults is important to them, so they will look for ways to make them happy and proud of their work and behavior.
- Eight-year-olds are more resilient when they make mistakes. Their peers’ and teachers’ approval is very important. They have a raised social awareness and may begin comparing themselves to others. For this reason, this is a key age to notice judgments about others and encourage empathizing with challenging feelings and offering compassionate remarks and ways of thinking.
- Nine-year-olds can become easily frustrated. They need directions that contain one instruction. They may worry about peer approval and their own appearance and interests. They require practice with perspective taking and empathy.
- Ten-year-olds are developing a strong sense of right and wrong and fairness. They tend to be able to work through conflicts with friends more rapidly. You can build on that sense of fairness by discussing race, gender, and other ways people can be marginalized and what they can do to stand up for others. This is also an ideal time to practice identifying and understanding people’s feelings who are beyond your immediate intimate relationships, such as people you encounter in the community, people in the news, or people you encounter through travel experiences.
Teaching is different than just telling. Teaching builds basic skills, grows problem-solving abilities, and sets your child up for success. Teaching also involves modeling and practicing the positive behaviors you want to see, promoting skills, and preventing problems. Empathy is a skill that can be taught.
- Set the rule or expectation in your household: Feelings are always right and okay! This helps each family member feel safe to express what they are feeling. What you do with those feelings is the important next step that determines whether you take responsibility for your own feelings and actions so that you do not harm yourself or others.
- Do daily feelings check-ins as a routine at dinnertime or another moment when family members are together! Talk to family members about the importance of emotional honesty. Agree not to judge one another but care for each other when challenging feelings are expressed. Post your feelings chart somewhere visible as a reminder!
- Notice facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language in others that indicate feelings. Remember communication is 90% body language and emotional signals and only 10% verbal. You can practice reading others’ body language while watching a movie together or while people watching at a busy airport or mall.
- Notice pain or distress. Think together about ways you can show care or offer help. Take one small step together to help a person in pain. Discuss how it feels before taking action and after taking action.
- Practice and support inclusion. For example, if your child is hesitant to play with someone who looks or sounds different than they do, ask questions and then support your child by offering encouragement. “How do you think they would feel if we invited them to play or hang out (for older children)? Perhaps they would feel excited to be invited to play. Let’s go over and say hello together.”
- For five-, six-, and seven-year-olds especially, engage in their pretend play with action figures, dolls, or trains. In play, ascribe feelings to the characters you are controlling and ways in which the character is managing those feelings. Be sure you also notice how your child might mimic those emotions and actions and build on that interest by adding additional complicated feelings to the mix!
- Develop empathic thinking when it’s most challenging for your child. For example, when your child points a blaming finger saying, “He did it!” you could respond with:
- “What do you think he’s feeling?”
- “What choice would you make if you were feeling sad or hurt?”
- “What do you think could make him feel better?”
Don’t tell your child what they feel; ask instead. You want to empower children with their own feelings vocabulary. You might say, “You look sad. Is that right?”
Step 3. Practice to Grow Empathy Skills and Develop Habits
Your daily routines can be opportunities for you and your child to practice vital new skills if you seize those chances. Practice provides important opportunities to grow empathy as they interact with you and others. Practice grows vital new brain connections that strengthen and eventually form habits.
- Whenever you see another child become emotional, use it as an opportunity to figure out the feeling together. “What do you think he’s feeling now? Why do you think that?”
- Read together. Discuss the characters’ motivation for choices and their feelings when conflicts or problems occur. Be sure to name a multitude of feelings or point out contradictory feelings since, often, a person experiences more than one feeling and sometimes feelings can be conflicting.
- Practice mirroring your child’s facial expressions, tones of speech, and attitudes when you are communicating with them, and encourage them to mirror those things they see in you back to you. Mirroring shows that you are paying attention to and understanding each other’s thoughts and feelings.
- When your child comes home with a story of friends or peers at school, seize the chance to practice empathy skills. Be sure and ask, “What do you think they were feeling? Thinking? And what could make things better? What were you thinking and feeling when that happened? What might you do next time to feel better about the situation? Is there any harm that needs to be repaired between you and another peer?”
- Involve the whole family and create guessing games at dinner or when you are playing together. Have someone make an emotional face. Take turns guessing what they are feeling. Remember that your child is actively trying to figure out other people’s feelings and reactions. Join in the excitement of making discoveries about others’ thoughts and feelings, and your child will continue to remain curious and learn even when you are not present.
Resist judging other children who hurt your child either with words or actions. Most often, you may not know the whole story of the child who is lashing out, but you do know one thing for certain – that child is hurting. First, listen to the feelings of your child and express care. Then, express that it’s impossible to see the whole picture. “Children only say hurtful words when they feel hurt themselves. Do you know why they might be hurting?” Prompt compassionate thinking. Then coach your child how to respond in ways that do no harm to self or another. “Next time, could you move away or ask them to stop? Good. Let’s practice.”
Step 4. Support Your Child’s Development and Success
At this point, you have been developing your child’s skills in empathy, and you are allowing them to practice. Now, you can offer support when it’s needed by reteaching, monitoring, and coaching. Parents and those in a parenting role naturally offer support as they see their child fumble with a situation in which they need help. This is no different.
By providing support, you are reinforcing their ability to take another’s perspective and begin to recognize and understand what another is thinking and feeling. This awareness helps to grow their relationships.
- Initially, your child may need active support to encourage empathy. Use “Tell me…” statements and ask them to demonstrate empathy. You could say, “Tell me what you understand about how your sister is feeling. What is something you can do for her to show you understand and are here for her?”
- Recognize effort by using “I notice” statements like: “I noticed how you saw they were sad and shared your favorite snack to help them feel better. That was kind of you.”
- On days with extra challenges when you can see your child is frustrated or feeling incapable, proactively remind your child of their strength. In a gentle, non-public way, you can whisper in your child’s ear, “Remember how you gave your sister a hug to feel better the other day? How could you do the same for your brother who is having a hard day today?”
- Actively reflect on how your child is feeling when approaching challenges. You can ask questions like:
- “How have you been feeling during recess?” Offering a chance to talk gives insight into your child’s social challenges.
- “Seems like you got frustrated waiting for your turn and just stopped playing. Is that right? Did it help you feel better?” Be sure to reflect on the outcomes of their choices.
Don’t fix problems between your child and another. You could be taking away valuable learning for your child. Instead ask them questions about how they can get their own needs met (“Could you take a break, get a drink of water, and then go back to playing?”) and about how they can understand each other’s feelings and start to feel better.
Step 5. Recognize Effort and Quality to Foster Motivation
If your child is working to grow their skills — even in small ways — it will be worth your while to recognize it. Your recognition can go a long way in promoting positive behaviors and expanding your child’s empathy. Your recognition also promotes safe, secure, and nurturing relationships — a foundation for strong communication and a healthy relationship with you as they grow.
You can recognize your child’s efforts with praise, high fives, and hugs. Praise is most effective when you name the specific behavior of which you want to see more. For example, “You invited that child who was sitting quietly alone at lunch to join your table. I love hearing that!”
Avoid bribes. A bribe is a promise for a behavior, while praise is special attention after the behavior. While bribes may work in the short term, praise grows lasting motivation for good behavior and effort. For example, instead of saying, “If you go check on your sister, I will let you have more time to play at the park” (which is a bribe), try recognizing the behavior after. “You noticed your sister was feeling sad and went to check on her. I really appreciate that!”
- Recognize when your child identifies the thoughts or feelings of another child. “You thought your friend might be tired when they were being quiet. You were correct.”
- Recognize small steps along the way. Each little discovery about another person’s thoughts and feelings is an exciting step forward. Remember that your recognition can work as a tool to promote more positive behaviors. Find small ways your child is making an effort and let them know you see them.
- Build celebrations into your routine. For example, if your child talks to a new classmate, offer a playdate or a simple after school snack together. If your child finds a way to help a friend feel better, recognize their effort. Include hugs, high fives, and fist bumps in your ways to appreciate one another.
Engaging in these five steps is an investment that builds your skills as an effective parent to use on many other issues and builds important skills that will last a lifetime for your child. Throughout this tool, there are opportunities for children to become more self-aware, to deepen their social awareness, to exercise their self-management skills, to work on their relationship skills, and to practice responsible decision making.