For parents diligently helping their children in their overall development, empathy can easily go overlooked. In part, this may be because the concept is not something that is easily explained in words—especially for younger children. To help, we’ve found that the best ways to teach an abstract concept like empathy to your child tend to be organic—including leading by example and explaining how your actions affect other people in your life.
What is Empathy?
Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Essentially, it means to put yourself in their shoes and look at something from their perspective.
How to Teach Empathy?
We may try to use our actions to set an example but how can you teach empathy? Start by focusing on helping your child build a sense of self and stay mindful of their actions. A good way to teach empathy is when a random stranger does something out of anger towards you (cuts you off on the freeway, says something mean to you, etc.), don’t react in anger. Instead, think to yourself and out loud to your child, “why is this person acting this way? Maybe they just lost their job? Maybe they are sick or just found out someone else they care about is sick?” You will never know why. But if you and your child look at it from that perspective, you will start to think more empathetically.
Build a Healthy Sense of Self
It may seem counterintuitive, but your child must establish confidence in themselves to have empathy for others. This does not mean that you should assure them that they are the best at everything they do or try to set them above their peers. Instead, establishing confidence is about recognizing who you are and how you affect the world around you. As your child’s inner self becomes clearer and clearer, it is easier for them to relate to others empathically and have a positive effect on the other individuals in their life.
Once a child has developed a decent sense of self, you can teach empathy by helping your child recognize that they are a part of a larger community filled with others with their own unique personalities. Most importantly, their actions impact others. Most children respond well to the idea of being part of a community. They need a lot from people around them while they are young and developing. With these two realizations, your child can relate to and help others from their own empathic center.
Avoid Egocentric Childhood
When we are young—and before we have developed a sense of community—the world revolves around us. With a realistic sense of self, most people begin realizing that this is not the case. However, as we know, some adults hold onto the belief that the world revolves around them. Their chief concern is how each event affects them personally. In all likelihood, these adults experienced an egocentric childhood. Children whose parents enable an egocentric childhood don’t have the opportunity to realize that all individuals have their own experiences, which are just as complicated, detailed, and emotionally charged as their own lives.
Childhood is truly the best time to encourage awareness of the ego and help develop a healthy balance between handling self-needs and the needs of others. With help, children can begin understanding their friends, family, and peers. You can help your child realize that their own needs are part of the bigger picture. Teach empathy by telling them stories about other people who act selflessly. Be a good example yourself. Ask why your child feels like they want, need, or deserve something. Be transparent as you consider how your actions will affect others. Share your reasoning for making empathetic decisions.
Show Them What Empathy Means Yourself
Be honest in your approach to the conversation. By being calm and avoiding appearing dominating or ego-driven, you can gain insight into your child’s thought processes. You may even learn something about yourself along the way. Teaching empathy requires you to be open and calm in your responses to conversations and conflicts with your child. In the end, with your example at hand, your child can begin to make wise decisions that avoid conflict and consider the feelings of others.