In its simplest form, empathy is the awareness of the emotions of others. Empathy is the ability to understand how someone else is feeling. It is the ability to place yourself in someone else’s shoes or see things from someone else’s perspective. Feeling empathy inspires us to act more compassionately towards others. As an essential part of an individual’s emotional intelligence, it allows us to connect socially and emotionally with one another. When teaching children about empathy, it’s important to label and accept our own emotions first, set boundaries with others, read books about empathy, and then practice being empathetic with others!
We want to raise an empathetic generation who treat others with compassion and respect but also takes responsibility for their feelings and behaviors. A fundamental building block in helping young children with empathy is acknowledging their own feelings. Only when someone feels that their emotions are heard and understood can they do the same for someone else. At an early stage of teaching empathy, you and your child can figure out and label emotions together. Giving them the language to talk about emotions can help them connect those same feelings to their behaviors and any sensations they may feel in their own bodies.
Accept Your Child’s Emotions
If we strive for children to understand, accept, and welcome others around them, we must exemplify that we accept, understand, and welcome them unconditionally. This means, when a child expresses themselves, do not try to undermine their feelings – no matter how small the feeling may seem to you. Every emotion they may feel matters, and children yearn for you to acknowledge them feeling something. To truly teach your child empathy is to respond to them with kindness. Consistently reciprocating with warmth and compassion, children will gradually learn to accept it as the bare minimum standard.
When you speak with your child, you must discuss how you prefer to manage your emotions healthily. It is important to reiterate to your child that you alone are responsible for managing your own emotions and no one else’s. This drives home the message that emotions are manageable! They should not be feared, and their home is a safe space to share their emotions.
Teaching kids about empathy also means teaching kids about boundaries. Parents want children to be respectful of the emotions and boundaries of other people. However, a healthy mindset understands that being empathetic does not equate to ignoring our own needs or allowing others to violate our boundaries. Children can be taught boundaries by setting examples of behaviors that we would prefer to be limited. They can also be taught what to do when someone is not respectful of them and their own emotions. This might look like the parent healthily respecting the child’s boundaries and allowing them to say NO to an uncomfortable situation, person, or thing. It also means being the loud voice of reason when others are not respectful of your child’s feelings, especially when they are young!
Storytelling encourages children to process and make sense of complex events in their lives. Books can be used to teach them new ideas and concepts and help them practice their brand-new skills before they put them to use. Books are also a great help in teaching children to understand what emotions are and help develop empathy.
When reading, discuss and label the emotions of each character. Understanding why characters may be feeling a particular type of emotion or why they might feel the way they do is another important question. It might also be worthwhile to ask your child how they might respond if they were in a similar situation.
It is useful to have your child engage with other children their own age to practice empathetic behavior. At The Nest Schools, we practice caring for others in our Art of Living Program. We discuss and practice listening to others, discuss emotions, and practice caring for our pets!
Finally, it’s important to remember a few things. Empathy is not the act of putting another person’s needs ahead of your own and neglecting your own boundaries. It is not being responsible for someone else’s feelings or their own state of being. Empathy is not preventing someone from feeling any emotion, nor is it experienced through making others’ emotions as our own emotional state. Empathy is truly the capacity to feel for others, to create space for others, and to accept and meet others where they are at.
To treat our children with kindness, empathy, and compassion is the most critical modeled behavior that we can do for them. Through accepting our children’s emotions and regulatory states, we help them feel safe, secure, and accepted. And when children feel safe, secure, and accepted, we create a future generation that can help others feel the exact same way.