A four-year-old girl walks into a classroom for the first time. She does not speak English, and she knows no one, except her father who is lovingly dropping her off. The children are playing and only one boy notices her by the door from the other side of the room.
He gets up, walks towards her and reaches for her hand. He doesn’t say a word, but when he looks at her, she knows he understands exactly how she feels, and she feels safe.
Children who are empathetic are better able to deal with their emotions and those of others during conflict or even in everyday situations. This also allows them to “read” social cues, such as when a person wants to play and when they prefer to be left alone, or when it’s ok to give someone a hug. This will help your child make friends easier, have deeper and more meaningful relationships, and even have better grades at school.
Every child has the innate ability to understand another person’s circumstances, thoughts and feelings, which is described as empathy.
As parents, all we need to do is cultivate it. Here are six tips to teach your child empathy:
1. Help your child recognize different feelings.
Help your baby recognize different basic emotions and begin identifying them with words. Start with basic feelings, like “angry”, “happy” or “sad” and evolve to more subtle ones like “proud” or “disappointed”. This is the first lesson in teaching empathy and emotional intelligence. You can draw how you feel, talk about it, express it with movement, but don’t forget the most important prop: a mirror. Show your child their facial expression for each emotion, and explore it together.
As they grow older, use more complex vocabulary to help them understand how they feel: “It surprised you to see dad arrive so early today.” To enhance this learning, make sure you share with your child how you are feeling as well, by using feeling words yourself.
2. Be aware of others’ feelings.
As you go through the day, demonstrate empathetic behaviour by observing other people’s state of mind. Invite your child to participate in this observation by including it as part of your daily conversations. For instance, “That baby is laughing, she must feel so happy!” or “Look at the puppy in the car, it must be feeling lonely”. This will help your child recognize feelings in others.
3. Walk your talk.
The best way to teach your child empathy is to be empathetic as parents. Respond to your newborn’s needs with empathy and kindness, don’t keep him crying or waiting and you will teach him that you care. As they grow older, listen to them and let them know they are loved and understood.
They will learn that even being there for someone provides comfort. If your child sees you holding the door for strangers, or giving up your seat for someone who needs it more, it will teach your child not only to understand how others are feeling, but to know that they have the ability to make people feel better.
4. Help your child understand others.
Your child covers his ears when he hears another child cry very loudly. His first reaction is to feel bothered by the child. You take the time to look, then quietly comment to your child “That boy seems very upset, I see he is also holding his leg, he must have fallen and hurt himself. How can we help?”
As your child gains more practice, choose situations that are progressively more subtle or complex: “I noticed that Sam had his head down and was walking slowly after school today, I wonder if he had a chance to play with anyone at recess? Do you know if he might be feeling left out?”. Try also to help your child understand why a person may be affected by something that does not seem so obvious to them “Your sister is not upset with you, she is upset because she did not do very well on her test. She just needs a little time alone until it passes and she can think about it without getting emotional.”
5. Show your child how to make others feel good.
It is incredibly rewarding to make someone else happy. Give your child ample opportunity to care for you (they can make you a tea, for instance, or save you a piece of their chocolate bar), for siblings (“What do you think we could prepare for dinner that would make your brother feel special?”), for others (“it was really nice of you to hold the door for that man at the supermarket, especially because he looked so tired”. Once your children receive an allowance, teach them to set aside the amount they choose to help someone else. They can choose to help someone in need, or raise funds for something they believe in, like saving endangered species.
6. Praise empathy in your child.
When you see your little one demonstrating empathy, concern, or care for others, be quick to compliment her on her actions. “It was very nice of you to share your bucket at the park. How did you know this child wanted to play with it?” or “You made grandma very happy by giving her such a big hug. She misses you so much when she doesn’t see you!” Children who are empathetic feel much happier and more fulfilled. They also have a much higher level of understanding and acceptance for other cultures, and embrace different people and experiences regardless of how different they are from their own. They have more respect for animals, insects, and the environment, and have the qualities needed to be a true leader, an example for others. The next lesson will be to ensure that they treat themselves with the same kindness and respect as they treat others. The same way you taught your child to discover his feelings first before being able to understand how others feel, teach him that unless he feels happy and his needs are met, he won’t have much to give. A lesson as parents we also should learn!
| SOURCE: West Coast Families |