How to teach kids empathy
I recently shared a post on social media about the language parents use when communicating with children about their emotions. In the post, I recommended that parents avoid telling their kids that their actions “make” them feel sad (or happy, or angry or…well…you get the drift). And it caused a bit of a stir. Many people who commented on the post believed that using this language was teaching their kids empathy. They were surprised to learn that I didn’t agree. And they were left wondering how to teach kids empathy, if that wasn’t it.
So let me explain. Here’s how we really teach kids empathy.
What is empathy?
Empathy in its simplest form is the awareness of the feelings and emotions of others. It is the ability to understand how someone else is feeling, to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, or to see things from someone else’s perspective. Feeling empathy for and with others inspires us to act compassionately. It is an essential component of emotional intelligence that allows us to connect socially with others.
What is empathy not?
Empathy is not:
- Putting someone else’s needs ahead of your own and neglecting your own boundaries.
- Being responsible for someone else’s feelings or regulatory states.
- Preventing someone from feeling an emotion or helping them feel better.
- Absorbing the emotions of others to the point that your emotional state is dependent upon theirs.
How not to teach kids empathy
Now most of us value kindness. We want to raise empathic children who treat others with compassion and respect and take responsibility for their actions when they mess up. Right?
So many of us go to great lengths to teach our children empathy. We point out when their behaviour hurts others and try to teach them to be responsible for their actions. But when we use our own relationship, and our own emotions to do it, that’s when things get tricky.
Because when we use language like, “When you hit me, I feel sad”, we make our emotions our child’s problem.
Phrases like this teach our children that they are the cause of our feelings. And then, they think they should hide their feelings so as not to upset us. They learn that our emotions are more important than theirs. And that’s a problem. Because if we want to create a secure attachment with our kids, they need to know that they can show up authentically in their relationship with us. They need to know that it’s safe to bring all of their big, messy emotions to us and that we can handle them.
But they need to know that there are consequences for their actions!
This is one of the most common arguments I hear from parents when I suggest that they stop using the “When you _____, I feel ______” statement.
But here’s the thing: Your kids already know there are consequences for their actions!
Understanding of cause and effect begins to develop in infancy (remember all of those flashing, singing, pop up toys they played with when they were small?). They understand that their behaviour has consequences. They see it in their relationships with others all the time.
They are not behaving the way they do because they don’t understand that it hurts you. They are behaving the way that they do because they can’t control themselves when they become dysregulated. Because they lack the skills and the maturity to behave any other way. And when we focus on the consequences of their behaviour, rather than the cause, we risk adding shame into the mix.
In fact, many of the ways we attempt to teach young children empathy can quickly slide into shame. And no one is able to feel empathy towards another person when they feel ashamed. All they can think of is themselves and how bad they feel. The exact opposite of empathy.
The key to helping young children with empathy, and to understand how others feel, is to acknowledge their feelings first. Only when someone feels truly seen and understood can they see and understand someone else.
So how do we really teach kids empathy?
1. Label your child’s emotions
Before kids can understand the emotions of others, they need to understand their own. One of the earliest things we can do to teach our children empathy is to label their emotions. We need to give them the language to talk about emotions, and we also need to help them link those emotions to their behaviours and the sensations they feel in their bodies.
Try this: “I see you stomping your feet and frowning over there! Are you feeling angry because mummy said no more cookies?”
2. Accept your child’s emotions
If we want children to understand and accept others, then we need to start by showing them that we accept and understand them. Don’t try to squash your child’s emotions or shut them down when they express them – no matter how trivial they may seem to you. How they feel matters and they need you to acknowledge them.
Try this: “It’s ok to feel worried. I feel worried when I try new things too.”
3. Discuss your emotions
It is absolutely ok to discuss your own feelings with your child. On two conditions: 1. Don’t dump your emotions on your child, and 2. Don’t make them feel responsible for managing your emotions.
When you discuss your emotions with your child, it’s important that you also tell them – or even better, show them – how YOU are going to manage those emotions. Make it very clear to your child that you, and you alone, are responsible for the way that you feel – not them. This sends them the message that emotions are manageable and not to be feared, and that it is safe to share their emotions with you, because you can handle them.
Try this: “I’m feeling really frustrated right now. I’m going to take 3 deep breaths to calm my body.”
4. Read books
Books are a fantastic way to help kids understand emotions and develop empathy. Story telling helps children process and make sense of events in their lives. And we can use books to teach them new concepts and ideas and help them practice their new skills before they go out in to the world and use them! SO read lots of books, and talk about the emotions of the characters! Help your children understand why characters may be feeling a certain emotion, and how they know they feel that way. And then encourage your child to consider how they would respond if they were a in a similar situation.
Try this: “The little girl in the story had no one to play with at lunch time. How do you think she was feeling? If you were there how could you help her feel included?”
5. Use peer and/or sibling relationships
Relationships with other children are great opportunities for practicing empathy. Unlike the parent-child relationship, peer and sibling relationships are more equal. A child’s survival is dependent on a parent or caregivers love and acceptance, so they will do anything to preserve that, including denying importance parts of themselves to keep a parent happy. This dynamic doesn’t exist in a peer or sibling relationship, which is more interdependent. That being said, we still want to avoid shaming or blaming children (“Look how sad you made your sister! Why would you hit her? Now she’s crying!”). Rather than teaching empathy, this will create distance and resentment between the children.
Try this: “You must have been so angry to lash out at your brother like that! How can you make amends/help him feel safe again?”
6. Teach boundaries early
Teaching kids about empathy means teaching kids about boundaries – their own and others. We want children to be respectful of the emotions and boundaries of others, but we also want them to understand that being empathetic does not mean ignoring their own needs or allowing others to violate their boundaries. We can teach kids about boundaries early by setting limits with them around their behaviour, but also by teaching them what to do when someone is not respectful of them and their emotions. This looks like respecting their boundaries ourselves and allowing them to say no when they are uncomfortable with something. And it also means speaking up for them when we notice others are not being respectful of their feelings, especially when they are young.
Try this: “Would you like to give grandma a kiss, a hug, or a high five?”
7. Model empathy
One of the most important ways to teach kids about empathy, it to respond to them with empathy. When we consistently respond to our children with warmth and empathy, they will accept it as the norm. When they see it in action, when they feel it and experience it first hand, they will be better able to understand it, and then offer it to others.
Try this: “It’s hard to hear no. I don’t like it when I don’t get what I want either. I’m right here when you’re ready for a hug.”
Ultimately, children learn what they see. The most important thing we can do for our kids is to treat them with kindness, empathy and compassion. When we accept our children and all of their big emotions, we help them feel safe, secure and accepted. And only when they feel safe, secure and accepted, can they can help others feel the same way.
Sarah is a psychologist, mama of 4 and the creator of Mindful Little Minds. She has over 10 years of experience working with children, adolescents and families experiencing mental health problems and has a special interest in anxiety disorders in children. In her spare time she enjoys hugging her kids, drinking coffee, and telling anyone who’ll listen how tired she is.