Updated: Jul 16
Empathy is one of the most important components of Emotional Intelligence and yet when we are asked how to build empathy most people are lost for words. I guess if we are going to talk about building empathy, then we really need to understand what empathy really is.
Empathy is more than just understanding how someone is feeling. There are 3 distinct processes involved in empathy:
1. Emotional Sharing: when we feel similar emotions in response to observing someone else.
2. Empathetic Concern: which is the motivation to care for someone who is distressed
3. Perspective-taking: the ability to imagine how the other person feels. (Decety and Cowell, 2014)
We can’t expect that children will be able to do all three of these processes. Young children and also people on the Autistic spectrum struggle with perspective taking. However they may have high levels of emotional concern. Perspective taking can improve, especially when children are provided with opportunities to practice.
1. It starts at home.
As much as I love to provide fun tips and tricks that Psychologists and therapists use, when it comes to building empathy the biggest influencer will be you and the home environment. Children are always watching. If they see you valuing the feelings of others they will learn that this is something that they should value too.
When big emotions come up for our children we need to “emotion coach” them through this. It means that we need to acknowledge their emotion, listen and help them label the emotion. Then together come up with constructive ways to manage the emotion. By doing this you are empathetically showing them that you understand how they feel and that you want to help. This can be really hard, especially if their emotions have triggered yours. But who else are they going to learn this from? This is not something a Psychologist can teach in a one hour session a fortnight. We aren’t going to get this right every time, nobody does. But if we make building empathy a priority we will not only teach our children empathy, but also self-regulation and improve the connection in our relationship with them in the process.
2. Look for opportunities
Always be looking opportunities to help build empathy. It doesn’t matter if it is watching a TV show, reading a book or seeing people interact in the park. Talk to your child about emotions and perspectives of others. “How do you think they felt when that happened?” “What do you think they were thinking?” “How would you feel?” “What would you do in the same situation?” This can also be done in a structured way through role playing and games that encourage “mind-reading”.
Conflict between siblings is the perfect opportunity to build empathy. Try not to compete in a screaming match, that won’t help anyone. When the situation is calmer try and get the children to see how they each felt. If one child was hurt, have the other look at their facial expression and body to connect with the emotion. Once they have acknowledged how the other felt then they have to work out together (with your help) what they can do to help each other feel better. Now if one child had just bitten another, the hurt child may not want a hug, and saying sorry may not be enough. We want our kids to understand the impact of their behaviour, not just rattle off a “sorry”. It might be a letter, play a game or share a toy but it has to be something they both agree with.
3. The tips and tricks
There are a few activities that I have used with children to help build empathy that you can do at home.
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 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.