I Know How You Feel: Raising Empathetic Kids—The Practical Side
Okay, okay. I am the first to admit that I NEVER say to anyone, “I know exactly how you feel.” Each person has a unique personality AND background (family, culture, upbringing, etc.) coupled with specific life experiences. Because of this, I personally do not believe any two people are exactly alike. Moreover, I never pretend to know exactly what someone is feeling because simply put, “I am not them and I have not lived their life.” My experience of things like love, joy, fear and loss differ even from the people I love most, because we are all at least a little bit different as a result of our unique backgrounds and experiences.
Having said that, I do try my best as a counselor at practice and a human being doing daily life to imagine what people are feeling. Sure, I fall short often, especially when those around me are experiencing life situations that are unimaginable. Situations like the loss of a child, a terminal illness, addiction, suicide, bankruptcy or infidelity. But even in the most tragic of circumstances, I try my best to imagine the suffering those around me are experiencing. I call it “sitting with people in their pain”—sometimes without saying much of anything except, “I am sorry.”
So how do we learn empathy? How do we become able to “sit with people” when they are suffering? Many adults I know struggle with this. I saw it firsthand a couple of years ago when two of my closest friends buried their parents. People they thought would reach out to them—even to send a card—were completely silent. Others acted “shy or awkward”—my friends’ words. My friends did not understand why more people were not empathetic.
Many people don’t know what to do when bad things happen—how to offer empathy. They often don’t know “what empathy looks like” because it was never modeled for them as children. And sometimes they don’t know how to best help others because (thankfully) nothing tragic has happened in their lives so they are not acquainted with such circumstances. Whatever the case, empathy is imperative for children and adults who want to live emotionally healthy and meaningful lives. So how do we teach our children empathy? Here are two easy things you can do to begin teaching your children the art of empathy:
- Naming Feelings: This is a great technique to start using when children are very young, but it can continue to be used as they grow. When you believe your child is experiencing feelings like anger, sadness, fear, hurt, etc., point it out to them and verbalize it. Say, “Zander, you are feeling angry right now because I told you no cookies before lunch.” Or say, “Zinnia, I am so sorry your fell off your bike and are crying. You look sad. Where does it hurt?” Children are learning emotions as they mature and naming their emotions helps them with this learning process.
- Model & Practice Empathy: This sounds so simple, but you would be amazed at how many kids I see who do not know what to do (or say) when another child near them is in distress. Now young children play alone at first and then do parallel play where they play beside other children without interacting as toddlers. But after those developmental milestones are achieved and they begin to play WITH other children, you can begin modeling empathy. Teachable moments will arise when your child is with another child who gets hurt (falls down, takes a tumble on the playground etc.). Here is an example: A child falls down and gets hurt on the playground. Show your child what to do and say in this situation. They could say, “Sorry you got hurt, Sammy. Need any help?” Tell them to look the other child in the eye when they speak (I tell kids to look for the other person’s eye color because this insures they will look deeply) and then wait patiently for a response. I tell kids they can offer friends a hug, a drink/snack or a timeout of just sitting together until the hurt kid feels better. I also remind children that sometimes the other person will be too upset to answer right away and that is okay too.
Instilling empathy in young children is vital if they are to grow up into warm, compassionate and emotionally available adults. In the personal blog on this topic I will offer a few more ways to instill empathy, but the two described here are a good place to start.
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