How can we raise empathetic children?

“Empathy is seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another, and feeling with the heart of another”

(Alfred Adler, psychotherapist).

How can we raise empathetic children?

My wonderful local village school recently had “empathy” as it’s value of the month. It asked parents to talk to their children about empathy and how to show it to others. We know how vital this value is to our health and happiness and that of society. Studies show that children who learn to be empathetic do better in school, socially and in their adult working lives. Schools that intentionally incorporate it into their curriculum have seen better test results.

It seems however that empathy is in sharp decline. Several studies claim that children are becoming less emotionally intelligent, specifically less empathetic. The sociology department at the University of Michigan, led by Dr William Axinn at the Population Studies Centre published a study in 2010 which tells us that college students today are approximately 40 percent less empathetic than they were just ten years ago. US president Barack Obama went so far as to claim in 2013 that the “empathy deficit” was more of a problem than the federal deficit.

Why is empathy declining?”

“The 21st-century fixation with the virtual reality of the screen is having a devastating effect on a fundamental human quality: empathy”, writes Andrew Halls, Head of Kings College School, Wimbledon, who is introducing empathy lessons to combat the negative impact of technology (report by Matt Broomfield in The Independent, 5 March 2017).

Other explanations suggested include our hyper-competitive society; over-protective parenting; too much time spent in day-care; indulgent parents; narcissistic parents; smaller families; “Austerity Britain”, and lack of community. Some psychologists argue that it is society that has changed, making young people feel powerless in the face of anger politics and economic hardship and so more inclined to focus on their own small worlds.

The good news is that empathy is a skill that can be developed, practised and even taught. Our role as parents is crucial. How can we cultivate empathy in our children?

How can we cultivate empathy in our children?

  • Empathise with your child. When we empathise we enhance the bond between parent and child and the child learns to trust. Their attachment to you makes you makes them want to adopt your values and model your behaviour.
  • Use emotion coaching, a key parenting skill. When we tune into their emotional needs we validate a child’s feelings. Take a genuine interest in their lives. Ask them questions. Help them to understand their feelings by naming them (“You are feeling sad/frustrated/overwhelmed…”) and encourage them to talk about why they are feeling that way. This funny video helps to explain empathy
  • Often a child does not express empathy simply because some other feeling (perhaps shame or envy) is blocking their empathy. When they learn how to manage these negative feelings they are more likely to “release” the empathy. Help them to name the feelings. When they are calm teach some techniques for self-control (deep, slow breathing or walking away) and remind them of these techniques when they start to get upset. Also, practise how to resolve conflicts by discussing and then role playing different ways of responding, including with active listening, another key parenting skill. When they become more emotionally intelligent and experience more self-control, they are better able to show empathy to others.
  • Model empathy for others. They notice our attitude toward others, including those serving or helping us and those in distress or less fortunate. Contribute to a community in some way. We have to live our values consistently if we wish to pass them on.
  • Expand your child’s circle of concern. Teach them to see life from another’s perspective. People find it easier to empathise with others like them or people they care about. It is harder to empathise with people outside that circle. It is, therefore, part of our role as parents to guide children in understanding and caring for many types of people with different circumstances. This can be done through stories, TV, newspapers, drama and use of imagination. Discuss together what you see or read. This will help them to consider the feelings of vulnerable people, for example, a classmate who is being bullied or having problems keeping up. Guide them in finding simple ways to help.
  • Make caring for others a priority. Children need to hear from parents that showing respect and compassion is as important as their own happiness. Regularly remind them that they must be kind and that the world does not revolve around them. For example, parents should at times put children’s concern for others above their own happiness. Insist for example that they stop gaming and help tidy the house.
  • Provide opportunities for children to practise empathy. Learning empathy requires practice and guidance. Regularly considering others helps it to come more naturally. Try using family meetings to consider family challenges, listen carefully to your children’s views and ask them to listen to the views of others. Encourage empathy for classmates, particularly where there is conflict. Discuss ethical dilemmas such as whether they should invite a friend to a party when others do not want her to attend.
  • Praise their efforts at demonstrating empathy. By noticing and acknowledging any demonstration of empathy using descriptive praise you focus on the behaviour you want to see repeated. (“Thank you for noticing that I was worried about leaving on time and getting yourself ready without being asked.) Children then feel valued, secure and connected.

As parents, our cultivation of empathy in our children provides them with a skill which is vital for their happiness and success in life.

Please contact me to learn more about the key parenting skills of emotion coaching, active listening and descriptive praise.

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