Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of someone else. It involves skills that have to do with both understanding feelings and understanding someone else’s perspective. Teaching kids empathy is a process that evolves as they age.
According to Parenting Science, “researchers (Decety and Cowell 2014) have argued the word “empathy” has become a catch-all term for at least three distinct processes:
feeling another individual’s emotions (e.g., if you feel scared, it makes me feel scared);
reasoning about another person’s perspective (e.g., you “put yourself in my shoes,” and try to imagine what I am thinking or feeling); and
wanting to help — feeling sympathy and concern for someone who is vulnerable or distressed.”
So, to teach our kids to have empathy, we need to teach them all these skills as they are growing up. Since these are some complicated skills, teaching empathy isn’t a “one and done” conversation. It is an ongoing process of coaching our kids through many different interactions that they may experience. We can start with talking to our kids about feelings. Understanding their own feelings is the first step to being able to understand others’ feelings.
New Way to Talk about Feelings
If you are anything like me, you probably grew up hearing your parents tell you things like, "Suck it up buttercup" or "There's no crying in baseball," which taught us to keep our feelings bottled up or to ignore them.
The problem with that is when you bottle up feelings for too long, they are bound to erupt at the least opportune moment. I don't want to yell at my kids, my partner, or some random person in the supermarket checkout. But that is what happens when we are out of touch with our feelings. My therapist had me read the book "Non-Violent Communication" and in one of the early chapters it talks about how out of touch most people are with their feelings. On one hand, it made me feel better to know that I wasn't alone, but on the other hand, it is unfortunate the lack of understanding that most people have of their own feelings.
Feelings are an integral part of who we are as human beings, and quite often we struggle with how to express them.
As parents, we can teach our kids about their feelings in a more positive manner than what we were taught in the past by the older generations.
As Parents, We Are Role Models
When it comes to coping with feelings, our actions speak louder than words. Kids are likely to cope with their feelings in the same ways that they see us coping with ours.
If we model a lack of emotional awareness or emotional self-regulation, we teach our kids to do the same. To learn to be less reactive with our emotions, we must first learn to understand and accept them. When we are taught at a young age that some emotions are negative and to be avoided, we end up turning all our "bad" feelings inward to ourselves in the form of negative self-talk.
It's important to remember that there are no good or bad feelings, only good and bad ways of acting out those feelings.
To get kids to open up and talk about feelings, it is important to foster a sense of trust with them. When kids trust their parents, it makes them talk to us conversationally and share honestly about what is going on in their minds, good or bad. To create this open and honest sharing, it is important to make sure that children are secure in their relationship with us.
Understanding Attachment Styles
The way that children bond with parents early in life is called their Attachment Style ( Simply Psychology).
There are four attachment styles:
The goal of parenting in the early years is to help children form a secure attachment so that they will thrive later in life. Secure attachment means that a child feels safe with their parents and will explore their environment when the parents are nearby. The securely attached child also knows that their parents will come back when they leave. The securely attached child has their need for safety fulfilled by their parents. Forming a secure attachment happens when parents are caring and responsive to their children.
Attachment Parenting, also called Authoritative Parenting in the child psychology world, is one of four parenting styles outlined in research by Bowlby and Ainsworth. The four parenting styles are all based on a continuum of responsiveness and demandingness.
Responsiveness means that the parent responds to the child's needs. Demandingness means that the parent sets high standards for the child. The Authoritative (Attachment) parent is high in both of these categories (The 4 Principles of Attachment Parenting and Why They Work | Psychology Today).
The principles of Attachment Parenting are important with newborns because a child forms the attachment to their caregiver by about 6 months of age. A child who is securely attached to their parent or other caregiver will be more successful in other relationships than children who are not.
As children become older, they will learn to do more things on their own naturally. Children will feel safer to explore the world and try new things when they feel safe and sure in their relationship with their parents. These are children who are confident in knowing that they are loved unconditionally.
Fulfilling the Needs for Love and Safety
By being responsive to our children's needs, we help them to build trust in the parent-child relationship. Trust that we will always be there when they need us allows children to feel safe. They know that even when they make mistakes or occasionally disappoint us, we will still love them. By showing this type of unconditional love to our children, we are building the foundation of empathy. We are modeling a positive regard for our children’s feelings.
We love our children because of who they are, not what they do.
The basic principle behind Attachment Parenting is that the parent becomes a secure base from which the child can move with confidence to explore the world.
Unfortunately in some circles, fulfilling a child's needs for love and safety is considered spoiling them. We provide for our children's needs for shelter, food, and education without question. Yet when it comes to the need for love and responsiveness, it's ok in the eyes of society for that to be conditional. This can create later problems in the development of empathy in children because they haven’t been shown empathy themselves.
Starting the Conversation about Feelings
I am a big fan of books, so I have found several books about feelings to read to my toddler, and we read them as part of our bedtime story rotation. This helps to normalize feelings as a topic they are comfortable with in a general sense.
We also have adopted the "feelings faces" which is a chart with pictures of different types of feelings. These are available with generic emoji looking faces or faces of other kids. I have my daughter identify the feeling of each face. You can also practice making faces to correspond to each emotion with your kids so they learn to recognize emotions in others.
It is important to have regular conversations with kids about feelings, of course when you aren't in the heat of an argument. You can embed this in your daily interactions easily. Just like you can point out colors of objects in your home, you can observe the feelings that you or your child are experiencing. When it becomes just an observation without a judgement attached, the conversation flows more easily.
Our family is also pretty big on movies, so we often use the feelings of movie characters as teaching tools too.
In one of our favorite movies, Home, they talk about being sad-mad. This is when you feel sad and angry all at once and start to act out feelings in a mean way with hitting and yelling. The two main characters start out at odds but have some deep conversations about feelings and eventually come to be friends. They begin to grow individually as well. If you haven't seen this movie, I highly recommend. It's about aliens invading earth and what happens after.
This is just one example of many. For me it helps to have some context to talk about what to do when you feel a certain way. I like to point out that just because you are mad doesn’t mean you have to do something mean. Also, asking why book or movie characters felt a certain way helps to teach kids about empathy. That way they aren't just thinking about their own feelings but the feelings of others as well.
When talking to my kids I also give a lot of personal examples of when I acted in a way that wasn't very good. For example if my daughter gets mad, hits something and hurts herself, I could tell her that once I got mad, kicked a metal filing cabinet and cut up my leg. It helps kids to understand why a certain behavior field by emotions might end badly. Also, when we humanize ourselves as parents, instead of claiming to be perfect and all-knowing, it helps kids to listen better and be more open to talking about their feelings too.
The Way We Talk to Our Kids Matters
The things that we say to our children repeatedly become the things they will subconsciously say to themselves, and to others, later in life. For example, If we always tell little Suzy that she is so pretty, she will grow up saying that to herself. If we tell little Johnny that he is a fast runner, he will say that to himself. There are many positive things that we can tell our children and praising them for things that they do well is very important.
Conversely, the negative things that we tell our children will stick with them too. Pretend that the same parent tells little Suzy that she is stupid, and tells little Johnny that he is annoying. Those are also messages that they will internalize later in life, especially if their parents are saying those things regularly.
So something to keep in mind when talking to kids, always frame statements in a positive manner, even when you are asking them to stop doing something. My toddler is a busy little thing. This morning she was jumping around the living room when I wanted to brush her hair. Instead of telling her, "Stop jumping around so I can brush your hair!" I said to her, "Please come here so I can brush your hair." You may be surprised, but even a simple change in the way you phrase things can make a huge difference! Over time, the things you say to kids will become things that they say back to you. This is true for the good and the bad! This means kids are learning how to interact with the world in terms of feelings and actions from us. When we treat our kids like their feelings are valuable, they will start to treat others like their feelings are valuable as well. This is the beginning of empathy: the belief that feelings are important. The way that we respond to our children’s feelings is the same way that they will respond to the feelings of others. Since kids are learning so much from us, it is so important to teach them the value of being kind and gentle with people’s feelings. We do this by being kind and gentle with our children by the way that we relate to their feelings. If we get angry and upset when our children cry, we are teaching those feelings are unwelcome. We need to be sure that we react in a way that teaches the lessons that we want to teach.
Impacts of Negative Talk
Just like positive things we say to our children become a part of their self-talk, so do negative things. Kids are like little sponges soaking up information from all around them. Even if we speak positively to them, if they hear us constantly criticizing ourselves, they will think that is a normal way to be. Kids accept what we do without question in many ways because they have a tendency of being unaware of other ways of doing things than what they see modeled at home. If we are moms that are constantly dieting for example, kids will think that is something natural. However, if we talk instead about healthy eating in a positive manner, kids will normalize that too. They see the way we talk about ourselves and mirror that. So even if we are talking positively to our kids, we need to watch what we say about ourselves too, since that is an important reflection of our values.
The Value of Helping Others
We can teach kids from a young age to be kind and help others. In families we often help each other with tasks and work together. We can clean the house together, help a child tie their shoe, or teach them to hold the door for someone whose hands are full. We can teach them to do the modern-day equivalent of helping an old lady across the street. Kids are happy to help in most instances. They take a sense of pride in making other people happy. When they do, be sure to praise them so that they will continue to do so. Also, if a child offers to help you, it is great for their self-esteem and development to accept their help, even if you don’t need it.
Teaching kids about feelings is a lifelong process that is constantly evolving. First, we teach them to understand their own feelings, then to understand the feelings of others. Once they understand, we can teach them how to take someone else’s perspective and treat the people around them with empathy and compassion. We teach children through the way we speak to them, to others, and ourselves. Since we are role models for our children, self-monitoring and learning may often be necessary for us as well.
Hi, I am Nicole, one of the oldest Millennial Moms, some would call me Xennial since I was born in 1982.
I am a proud mom to my two girls, Atlantis (18) and River (4), as well as my plus one child, Atlantis's Partner, Phyre (18). I share my life with my wonderful partner, Gary.
My blog is is both a Motherhood Blog and Healthy Lifestyle Blog. I believe that our own health and happiness is intertwined with our parenting. Taking care of ourselves so that we can be at our best helps us to be happier moms and better parents overall. It is hard to provide for our kids in the best way possible when we are feeling depleted.