The recent devastating earthquake in Haiti, with its images of people and bodies being pulled from the rubble, has spurred a lot of hard (and good) conversations in our family about what we can do to help. My middle son, who’s impulsive and outgoing, wanted to rush there to rescue people right away, and has been scouring the house for change to bring to his school to add to their fundraising pot. My 7-year-old daughter, who is the first one ready in the morning and is organized to a fault, is helping her class to raise money for specific supplies. (And my teenager isn’t really involved in helping, because, let’s face it, he’s a teenager and not the most empathetic person on the planet right now! Still, we’ve had some good conversations about what it means to go through a natural disaster and have no food or shelter.)
The whole experience, while difficult and sad, has been important for my kids because it brings home the necessity of empathy in a child’s life the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and really ask the question, How would I feel? What would I want people to do for me in the same situation?
In my mind, empathy is probably the most difficult, yet the most vital quality a child can possess. While no one can always be kind and empathic, I think it’s important to teach your child that empathy is a trait that your family values from an early age.
The development of empathy in your kids may not come easy. Think about it children, by their very nature tend to be self-absorbed creatures, looking after their own interests without much concern about what other people think. (My guess is we all know numerous adults with the same characteristics! ) For kids, it is more natural to not fully grasp why empathy is such an integral part of a healthy life yet without empathy, they run the risk of growing up to be self-absorbed, narcissistic, selfish adults.
So how do parents help their kids to bone up on their empathy skills?
1. Remember that Empathy Can be Taught:
It is never too early or too late in your child’s development to begin teaching him how to be an empathic person. A favorite line that I have used with all my kids since they were very little has been: How do you think you would feel if… You could fill in the blank with whatever issue your child is struggling with. For instance, How would you feel if Lisa didn’t want to share her Nintendo DS (for example) with you? then wait for their response. Now this can go two ways here. One child may say, I would feel terrible and you can teach empathy by pointing out that Lisa feels terrible right now because you are not sharing. Voila! Lesson learned. Another child may say, I could care less! (Actually, this is a more normal response in most families.) This gives you the opportunity to help your child along by saying, Okay, then the DS needs to go in time out because you are refusing to share. When you are ready to be better at sharing, we can talk. Either way, your child is learning a lesson that you are expecting him to share, because an empathic person is not selfish. (And he’ll also know what it feels like to not have a turn with that DS!)
2. Let Kids Know That the World Doesn’t Revolve Around Them:
A second way to help your child develop empathy is to show them that the world isn’t just about them. In our house, my kids have to do a service project each summer. We have gleaned vegetables from local farms for food share, worked in homeless shelters, played the piano in nursing homes, and handed out food from our church food bank. Offering up your time and energy is a great way to teach your child that caring about others is a something your family values. You don’t have to do something every week even doing a service project a few times a year can have the same effect on your child. Kids need to be able to imagine what it would be like to live a life that is very different from their own world.
3. Point Out How Other People Around You are Feeling:
For instance, with your younger kids, if you are at the playground and see a child crying, you can say, That little boy looks sad. I feel badly for him right now. I wonder what would make him feel better? You can also teach empathy through learning a hard lesson. When my son was 8 years old and decided it would be funny to flush a bunch of toilet paper rolls down the toilets at school until they overflowed, the whole group of boys involved had to write a letter of apology to the janitor. My husband and I took it one step further and made our son clean out the entire bathroom by himself after school. There is nothing like yellow rubber gloves and a disgusting boys bathroom to teach a child that he would not want to be in the janitor’s shoes ever again! When my son said, I feel really badly for our janitor, Mom, I knew the lesson was learned.
4. Talk about What’s Happening in the World:
I think it’s often good to point out everyday problems that exist in our world and respond with empathy. As long as your child is old enough, I think discussing news stories is helpful. I might say to my kids, This person lost their house in a fire. That must feel awful for them. The point here isn’t to scare your kids, but to allow them to see that we have to nurture our ability to feel for others if we are to grow into caring, nurturing adults.
5. Teach Empathy by Being Empathetic:
When your child’s feelings are hurt, validate them by saying, I’m sorry your brother was mean to you. I would be sad too if I were in your shoes. Most of the time kids just want their parents to listen to them and empathize. How many times do you want to simply unload a problem to someone and have them really hear you? And how good do you feel when they nod along with you and acknowledge that you feel crummy That’s empathy.
Note: For a small number of children, showing a lack of empathy is indicative of a greater psychological problem. If your child consistently is unable to display empathy when interacting with peers, is mean or vindictive, purposely causes harm to others or is defiant each time he or she harms others, you need to contact your pediatrician to determine if they are at risk for having issues that need to be addressed by a professional. Children who struggle with this run the risk of having problems with peers, with teachers and schoolwork and/or run-ins with the law. If this is your child, contact your pediatrician today to discuss how to get him evaluated.
About Dr. Joan Simeo Munson
Dr. Joan Simeo Munson earned her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Denver. She has worked with incarcerated individuals, families, adolescents, and college students in a variety of settings, including county and city jails, community mental health centers, university counseling centers, and hospitals. She also has a background in individual, group, and couples counseling. Dr. Munson lives in Colorado with her husband and three energetic children. She currently has a private practice in Boulder where she sees adults, couples and adolescents.