When we think about what we want our kids to be like, usually we will say things like I want them to be kind, thoughtful, helpful, among other things. We want them to think about others and be involved in the good in the world. None of this is possible if our kids don't develop empathy. Not only does empathy impact on who they will be and what they will do in the future, but it also impacts their relationships and friendships throughout their whole life. It is very difficult to function socially with peers if you lack insight into how others are feeling. If someone has underdeveloped empathy they won't know how to communicate with they people around them. They won't understand if what they are saying is what they want to hear or if the other person is upset by it.
Empathy is actually a complex skill. Having empathy requires that we can see ourselves separate from someone else. It means that we can understand that other people have different thoughts and feelings. We also need to understand and recognise common feelings such as happy, sad, angry, scared in ourselves and others. Then on top of these we need to be able to imagine how a person may feel in different situation and have some insight in what to do to help. When we really think about it, that is a lot to know. There is some research that children begin to have understanding of people's feelings from the age of about 2 years of age. But the ability to put yourself in someone else's shoes in not fully developed till about 5 years of age.
Developing empathy doesn't just happen like a child getting their first tooth. There are things that need to be in place to develop empathy such as a safe, connected relationship with a care giver. But there are also things that we can do to help improve empathy.
We have to role Model Empathy
Kids are going to learn empathy if they experience empathy. We need to make sure that when our kids are experiencing big emotions, that we don't shut them down or dismiss them as silly. We need to help our kids learn what their feelings are and they will need us to label the emotion for them. The more we say "I understand that you are worried", "I can see that you are angry" the more we are helping our children connect with their body and their own emotion so they will be better are reading feelings in themselves and others. We are also validating their feelings so they realise that someone else understands how they feel. Then when we offer help, we are able to navigate the emotions with them and let them feel compassion.
We can also help our kids by talking to them about how others feel. If someone is hurt, ask them how they think they feel. This can be done if real situations or when you read a book or watch a movie. Having them practice this skill is like building the muscle of perspective. You can also explain how you feeling in different situations. But be careful not to have your children feel like they are responsible for how you feel. If you say "you make me sad when you do that", you are making them directly connected to your feelings. Instead say, "when my vase got broken, it made me sad". Connect the behaviour to the feeling rather than the child. That way they realise they need to change that behaviour not themselves.
People don't really like to think about the impact of violent video games or television but the research is clear, being exposed to violence will make people less empathetic. This is not just violent video games though. You just have to watch the news to be exposed to the horrible things that people are capable of. I strongly suggest not letting young children watch the news or even hear it on the radio. It seems that every news coverage there are shootings or violence in some way. Ultimately this exposure will desensitize us and lower our empathy.
There is no doubt that empathy is important, but if we want our kids to learn we have to make it fun. There are so many games that focus on feelings which is the first stage of empathy. Always show empathy to your kids to help them experience it, but you can also develop empathy through play.
The feelings wheel
This is a fun little craft that can help to visually identify emotions. I have this one which to be honest I have no idea where I got it. I have had a copy of this on my folders for at least 15 years but I still find it handy. You can draw your own or see what you can find on Pinterest etc. You cut the circles out and cut a hole for the face. The lay the circle with the body on top of the other and use a split pin to join them. Then you should be able to move the bottom circle to reveal different facial expressions.
You can use this in different ways. It might be a good way for your child to show you how they are feeling. This will help them connect their body with the emotion. You could use it to help your child understand how someone else is feeling. Or you can play a “feelings detective” game. Have your child use the wheel to try and guess how others are feeling. Again you can use characters in a book or on TV show to do this.
I was inspired with this from Kristina Marcelli (www.kristinamarcelli.worpress.com ) it is a great way for children to really understand how someone feels on the inside. It shows the impact of their behaviour but also shows that in the inside we are all the same. The fact that someone is showing that they are angry, may be the result of their feelings hurt and "heart broken" something that can't always be seen on the outside.
This helps children recognise other people’s feelings but also what they can do in these situations. You can use anything but a muffin tray works well. Write people that the child knows down and put a name in each muffin hole. Then use some coins, balls, beanbags, whatever you have, and write or draw feelings on them.
Have the child throw a feeling into the muffin tray. They then have to tell a time that they saw that person feel that way. You can then build on this by brainstorming of what they can do when this happens.
But remember you can have all the tips and tricks, but you need to be practicing empathy at home if you are going to help your child develop a strong sense of empathy themselves. They need to experience empathy, see empathy and practice empathy if they are going to develop into the kind, caring and helpful people we hope they will be