According to the dictionary, empathy is “the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions: the ability to share someone else’s feelings.”
In my work with parents and children, I often find that empathy is almost non-existent in certain individuals. They understand that someone is hurt or in pain or grieving but have no ability to put themselves in that person’s shoes. A heart without empathy is like a plant without water – it eventually dies. A heart without empathy makes people unkind, angry, irritable, and sometimes very hard to live with.
A boy I worked with few years ago used to sing to me the “empathy song,” as he called it. It was a rap: “Empathy, empathy, put yourself in the place of me.” This little boy struggled with empathy. He grew up in a very abusive home, with parents who used drugs every day and left him in charge of his younger siblings. The boy was eight years old at the time and carrying a big burden on his young shoulders. He was not capable of feeling much empathy because no empathy was shown to him. His parents treated him poorly and did not care that he did not have food or clothes or whether he went to school or not. He did not know how it feels to have his emotions and pain taken into account. He really had no clue about it, but learned that song that he sang to me all the time.
It is our role as parents to teach our children empathy. We are born with the ability to feel the pain of others, but empathy is deeper than that. When a three-year-old child hits his mom, his mom needs to tell him, “That hurt Mommy very badly. If Mommy did that to you, would that hurt you?” We are not to tell our kids “no” all the time with no explanation of our decision. They need to understand that when someone hurts their feelings, it is likely to hurt others’ feelings, too.
When my daughter was four years old, a boy at daycare called her “stupid.” She was sad about it and talked about it all the time. Guess what? My child will not call anyone stupid because she knows it hurts. She felt it herself and was able to use her hurt feelings to understand that someone else would feel the same. Starting from when she was very little, I constantly made comments about other people’s feelings and planted little empathy seedlings in her life.
Empathy is essential, yet many people lack it. If those people were more capable of moving from their logic/thoughts into their hearts/emotions, the world would be a better place. In my work as a therapist, I look for empathy in people and so I can teach them to apply that in their parenting, social relationships, and jobs. It saddens me when parents are not capable of empathy but request it from their children. For instance, when parents are cruel to their children and, not understanding how their children feel in those moments, expect the child to show them empathy.
When we tell a child to “think about how your behavior made me feel,” that is planting the seed of empathy; that is when we teach them that other people’s feelings are important.
How can we help our children develop empathy?
- Talk about your child’s feelings. We teach our children to talk about their feelings and put words to their emotions. Sometimes talk of feelings can be confusing and overwhelming. It is important to help children recognize what feelings they might feel and express those out loud. This helps them recognize when others might feel that way.
- Share with your child how you feel. Many times we adults encounter pain or sadness in others (for example, a friend’s loss of a family member). It is okay to talk about it and express how the loss made you feel and how you can find ways to help that person.
Reward empathy. When you catch your children doing something nice for their sister who is crying, or helping grandma bring the groceries in, reward them. Tell them how great it is to see how kind and empathic they are. This will encourage them to continue to behave that way.
- Be patient even when you think you can’t be. It took many situations to teach my daughter about empathy. Sometimes children (and many adults), have a hard time putting others’ needs/feelings first. Learning empathy is a process that can be slow and can take a lot of energy. And remember that age and brain development are also important factors in gaining and being able to use empathy skills.
is a therapist with The Labyrinth Institute specializing in children and families. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 720-432-7475.