Children do not have the cognitive skills to truly understand the concept of empathy until they are 8 or 9. There is no question that some children are just naturally more empathetic than others, but that does not mean that empathy cannot be learned and developed. Parents and caregivers should start teaching empathy at the youngest ages, by talking about feelings and emotions with their young ones.
Research suggests that empathy is a complex phenomenon involving several component skills:
- A sense of self-awareness and the ability to distinguish one’s own feelings from the feelings of others.
- Taking another person’s perspective (or, alternatively, “putting oneself in another person’s shoes”).
- Being able to regulate one’s own emotional responses.
Children today may not be getting enough of an education in how to handle their emotions and, in particular, how to empathize with people around them. College freshmen today are 40% less empathetic than they were 30 years ago, according to research done by the University of Michigan, which analyzed empathy among almost 14,000 college students over this time period.
Empathy goes beyond being able to see another person’s point of view. Even many adults are unable to empathize or understand other people’s feelings mainly due to their own lack of expression and understanding of their own feelings. Empathy is a function of both compassion and of seeing from another person’s perspective, and is the key to preventing bullying and other forms of cruelty.
In order to be truly empathetic, children need to learn more than simple perspective-taking; they need to know how to value, respect and understand another person’s views, even when they don’t agree with them.
Ways of Developing Empathy in Children:
- Empathize with your child and model how to feel compassion for others.
Children develop these qualities by watching us and experiencing our empathy for them. When we show that we truly know our children by understanding and reacting to their emotional needs, exhibiting interest and involvement in their lives, and respecting their personalities, they feel valued. Children who feel valued are more likely to value others and demonstrate respect for their needs. When we treat other people like they matter, our children notice, and are more likely to emulate our acts of caring and compassion.
- Make caring for others a priority and set high ethical expectations.
Children need to know that we are not simply paying lip service to empathy, that we show caring and compassion in our everyday lives. Rather than say, “The most important thing is that you are happy,” try: “The most important thing is that you are kind and that you are happy.” Prioritize caring when you talk about others, and help your child understand that the world does not revolve around them or their needs.
- Provide opportunities for children to practice.
Empathy, like other emotional skills, requires repetition to become second nature. Hold family meetings and involve children by challenging them to listen to and respect others’ perspectives. Ask children about conflicts at school and help them reflect on their classmates’ experiences. If another child is having social problems, talk about how that child may be feeling about the situation, and ask your child how he or she may be able help.
- Expand your child’s circle of concern.
It’s not hard for children to empathize with their immediate family and close friends, but it can be a real challenge to understand and feel for people outside of that circle. You can help your child expand their circle by “zooming in and zooming out”; listening carefully to a particular person and then pulling back to take in multiple perspectives. Encourage your child to talk about and speculate on the feelings of people who are particularly vulnerable or in need. Talk about how those people could be helped and comforted.
- Help children develop self-control and manage feelings effectively.
Even when children feel empathy for others, societal pressures and prejudices can block their ability to express their concern. When children are angry with each other over a perceived slight, for example, it can be a real challenge for them to engage their sense of empathy. Encourage children to name those stereotypes and prejudices, and to talk about their anger, envy, shame and other negative emotions. Model conflict resolution and anger management in your own actions, and let your children see you work through challenging feelings in your own life.
Educators will tell you that a classroom full of empathetic children simply runs more smoothly than one filled with even the happiest group of self-serving children. Similarly, family life is more harmonious when siblings are able feel for each other and put the needs of others ahead of individual happiness. If a classroom or a family full of caring children makes for a more peaceful and cooperative learning environment, just imagine what we could accomplish in a world populated by such children.