Teaching Kids Empathy


One of the many goals of parenting (seriously, this gig is exhausting) is to raise children who feel empathy. Hopefully, they’ll go out into the world and act with kindness and social responsibility. We all want kids who will care about others, the community and the world at large. Also, with some empathy on board they may not be so quick to ship us off to some rundown old age facility the first chance they get. So teaching them empathy is a win/win.

But how do we do it? From last week’s look at Emotional Intelligence, I learnt that identifying emotions is key and according to Michelle Bora and her book, Building Moral Intelligence, teaching children to identify their own feelings is the foundation of learning empathy. That’s probably not as easy as it sounds, so I’ve been researching the ways to do this and have come up with a few:

1. Validate all emotions: This is really important. We all need to feel that our emotions are legitimate. It’s really hard as a parent to do this all the time. I’d hate to admit (though I think I am) how many times I brush my kids’ feelings aside. I’ve heard myself say, “That’s not worth getting upset about,’ or “That’s not scary,” way too many times. Their feelings are their feelings. Who am I to say what they should or shouldn’t be feeling? Not only is it inconsiderate, but it’s really counterproductive. If I negate their feelings, they might internalise that and learn not to trust or listen to them themselves. Historically, this has been a big problem with gender stereotyping. Boys are taught that they can’t be sensitive or have “soft” emotions, so they push them away in favour of feelings like anger and aggression.

I’ve learnt that a much better (though more difficult – isn’t that always the way?) to deal with emotions is to:

2. Empathise with your child: When they’re little you can name their feelings for them to give them the words to describe how they’re feeling. When they’re older you can ask them how they’re feeling and see if they can tell you why they’re feeling that way. I’ve seen my daughter sigh with relief when I’ve done this and then listened attentively. The problem is that this can be really hard in the middle of a busy afternoon – especially when it’s part of a sibling fight when there are emotions flying around the room left, right and centre. Ah, I digress.

3. Encourage an emotional vocabulary: Children need to learn lots of feeling words so that they can describe their emotions and then learn different ways of expressing them.

4. Explore all emotions: Don’t shy away from the “negative” emotions. Life isn’t perfect – it’s good to teach kids this and have them accept all their feelings. One great way of doing this is playing a game around the dinner table called “highs and lows” or “roses and thorns”, where everyone in the family has a turn at describing the positive and negative things that happened in their day and all the associated emotions.

5. Introduce your child to mindfulness: OK, I know I’m biased, but I had to slip this one in. Mindfulness teaches children (and adults) to pay attention to sensations and feelings. It helps to identify emotions and where they are felt in the body. It can be great for helping children to notice and identify their feelings.

So, teaching our kids (and ourselves) how to identify their emotions is only the first step on the road to learning empathy. This week I’m going to keep reading on how to do more and report back next week.

Happy Monday (or sad – either is fine)!

One thought on “Teaching Kids Empathy

  1. Cara Turner

    What a great post! I am seriously bad with empathy. I think it is because my parents weren’t very empathetic themselves, and they are my default for parenting. Sometimes I think my kids are very needy, and it may be that they are that way because they are seeking empathy from me. This makes me really think about why I need to show them more empathy.

    Liked by 1 person

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