Empathy plays a very important role in the interaction between human beings. I have been working with children for over 28 years and have found that although some kids are naturally empathetic and others are not, empathy can be learned.
Empathy is just one of the elements of Emotional Intelligence (EQ). As teachers, we focus on 4 major components of EQ:
- Recognizing my feelings.
- Managing my feelings.
- Recognizing the feelings of others.
- Helping and supporting others to manage their feelings.
Empathy falls under component 3 (recognizing the feelings of others). Despite it being an element all on its own, we believe that it can contribute greatly to the development of the first two components. We believe that anyone who can understand the feelings of others is better at communicating, managing conflicts and generally has more successful relationships.
If you are a regular visitor to this blog, you know I believe that the earlier you start working with children, the better chance you have of instilling key skills and lessons into their toolkit of coping mechanisms. Even a basic understanding of the process of empathy, and some key strategies on how to use it will give you the peace of mind that your child is equipped to go through life with plenty of empathy with which to navigate relationships throughout their entire lives.
- Kids develop “Theory of mind” around the age of 4. Theory of mind is the ability to understand that other people have different beliefs, desires and intentions to us. By this stage, children are able to understand that others are different to them and may have different reasons for doing things. This means they can predict what others might think or say. This is an essential developmental stage. Unfortunately, it has a critical time period. If it developed too late, it can have a lifelong impact. Do not wait for someone else to teach this to your child. Start early.
- Most of our empathy is developed through Mirror-Neurons, copying what our major agents feel and do. You are your child’s major agent. Monitor and work on your empathy if you want to make sure your child will mirror it properly.
- The most wonderful and enjoyable way to learn empathy is to play “people watching”. Sit down with your kids in a place where there are many people and play a guessing game about the motives, work, fears, worries, hobbies and stories of the families you see. Make sure the kids know there is no right or wrong guesses and teach them to accept any guess as valid.
- Play the “director game” with your kids. While watching movies together, try to guess the ending or try coming up with a new ending. There are many people to consider when “directing” – a movie, the actors, the plot and the audience. The more people they need to consider the better they become at understanding others.
- Role playing and pretend play are greats way to learn empathy. When kids pretend they are someone else, they need to think, talk and behave like that person. Just acting like another person can make them feel like him/her. Give them opportunities to imitate others and talk to them about they felt being the other person.
- When having to make decisions, ask your children’s opinion. You can do this even if they are 4 or 5 years old. Ask, “If you were in my place, what would you do?” Make sure not to judge their suggestions and do not give them the impression that you are planning to do what they says. You just want their opinion.
- When you find out about someone else who is experiencing a problem, ask your kids, “What would you do if you were in their place?” This will force them to put themselves in another person’s shoes. Do not focus on the “right” answer because there is no right answer. The goal is to try to imagine what “their place” might feel like.
- After asking, “What would you do in their place?”, try to asking, “If you were in their place, what would help you overcome your problem?”. This question moves them towards solution rather than the hurt feeling.
- When your child is experiencing some conflict with others, play the “let’s put ourselves in his/her shoes” game. Help them learn to consider others’ points of view without judging.
- To manage conflicts and practice empathy when they disagree with someone, teach your kids to say “I would do it differently” or “I think differently” without mocking or putting down others’ thoughts and opinions. (And do the same yourself!)
- Give them verbal encouragement when they notice that someone else is hurt or when someone else is happy. Noticing that a kid in class was sad, proud, hurt or happy is a wonderful empathetic ability. Regardless of whether it true or not, makes sure to say, “You are a very sensitive kid. It is great that you are able to notice when someone else is hurt/happy”. This will encourage your kids to notice others’ feelings.
- Teach your kids to manage pain from the past and move forward. It is very hard to be sensitive to others when you have your own hurt to deal with. Teach them the art of NEXTing so they can move on from the problems in life rather than carrying them on their backs.
- Encourage your family to do random (or even not so random) acts of kindness. Kindness is the ultimate display of empathy. It is when you feel what others are feeling and are willing to do something to change it.
- Talk with your kids about empathy and all the aspects of it. Talk to them about fairness, justice, compassion, kindness, forgiveness. It will help them define those concepts at a very early stage. These are the ingredients of compassion.