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Raising an Empathetic Child

At recess, a child trips on the play equipment and falls into a muddy puddle.  Some of the other children laugh; some don’t pay much attention. One child wanders over that way and helps him up. What is it about this one child that drives him to help another? Why is he concerned about a friend when others aren’t? Clearly, the child’s ability to empathize plays a crucial role in his actions.

As parents, we all would like to think that our child would be the one to help.  We want to believe that we are raising our kids to “do the right thing” and to care about others. Empathy, however, is a bit more complicated than that. Empathy goes beyond simply “caring” about someone; it’s the ability to actually feel with someone.  An empathetic individual is able to see a situation from another’s perspective (or really “feel” from another’s perspective), respond in a way he or she believes would be comforting to that person, all while separating his or her own feelings from those of others. 

While the explanation of empathy might sound complicated, teaching this skill to your child is not. In fact, most parents are probably already instilling empathy without even realizing it.   

Here are five tips for raising an empathetic child:

  1. Be a responsive parent. Beginning in infancy, babies learn empathy when their needs are met by a caregiver. If a baby is fussy, a responsive parent cuddles; if a baby is hungry, a responsive parent feeds her.  As children get older, they need to know that parents understand their feelings and are there to comfort them in times of need.  Children whose needs are met at home have a greater capacity for showing empathy to others.
  2. Label feelings.  When children are able to identify and name their own emotions, they are better able to recognize emotion in others. Younger children are able to understand basic feeling labels such as mad, happy and sad but might need parental help in labeling these feelings. Simple acknowledgement of a feeling by a parent can be enough to diffuse a situation: “I can see you are very mad that we had to leave the park. I was having fun, too.” As children get older, parents can help them label more complex feelings, such as frustration, disappointment, nervousness, embarrassment, etc.
  3. Allow all feelings to be okay. Many parents want to quickly jump in and make sad or angry feelings go away for their children. Allowing your child to feel a wide range of emotions while experiencing support and comfort from you helps increase his emotional intelligence. Children who are taught that certain feelings are not okay often grow up struggling with how to feel or express these emotions. Allow your child to feel uncomfortable feelings and provide him with safe ways to express and cope with them.
  4. Model empathy. Sue Boxer, director of early childhood at B’nai Jehudah, is inspired by the quote “If you don’t model what you teach, you are teaching something else.” She believes that children are very keen observers and will pick up on how we, as adults, treat others.  Simply expressing concern about someone or trying to understand their hurt or angry feelings teaches your children about empathy. Jessica Marien, Leawood mom of four, says she and her husband try to model empathy by speaking "internal dialogue" out loud. “This allows my children to hear us ‘wonder’ about how our decisions will impact others,” she says.
  5. Volunteer. Finding ways to serve others allows your child to think about what it would be like to be in someone else’s shoes. A visit to a nursing home might open your child’s eyes to the loneliness a resident might experience.  Even a simple act of donating toys might help spark a conversation about what it might feel like to have little or nothing. Providing experiences for your child to help make the world a better place is a great building block for the development of empathy.

Know that developing and practicing empathy is a lifelong process, not something that happens overnight. Our job as parents is to do all we can to teach and model empathy for our children as they grow. It is one of the greatest gifts we can offer them. 

Kimberly Levitan, LCSW, is the founder of Playful Solutions, providing play therapy for children and families in the Kansas City metro.  Teaching and modeling empathy is part of her daily work with clients.  To learn more, visit www.PlayfulSolutionsKC.com.

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