Every child is already empathic. We all are (with a few exceptions). We are wired for empathy. We are wired to connect, communicate and collaborate with others.
Empathy develops in infancy. “A child first learns to tune in to his or her mother’s emotions and moods, and later on to other people’s,” write Jessica Joelle Alexander and Iben Dissing Sandahl in their new book The Danish Way of Parenting: What the Happiest People in the World Know About Raising Confident, Capable Kids.
They further explain, “What the mother feels, the child will feel and mirror. This is why things such as eye contact, facial expressions, and tone of voice are so important in the beginning of life. It is the first way we feel trust and attachment and begin to learn empathy.”
Research also shows that 18-month-olds will typically try to help an adult who’s struggling with a task. For instance, when the adult is reaching for an object, toddlers will hand it to the person. (See here and here.)
Alexander and Sandahl define empathy as “the ability to recognize and understand the feelings of others. It is the ability to feel what someone else feels — not only to feel for him but to feel with him. “
Empathy is powerful. It improves our relationships. It reduces bullying. It contributes to successful entrepreneurs and leaders. Teens who are empathic are more successful, too, because they typically want to understand the material and apply it (versus getting good grades to get good grades).
As a parent or caregiver, you are your child’s primary teacher for practicing empathy. One of the most important lessons revolves around emotions. Kids who are told how to feel — you should be happy! Don’t cry! — become disconnected from their feelings. Which makes it harder to develop empathy for others — and to make healthy decisions and navigate life in general. As the authors write, “How can we know what we want when we don’t know what we feel?”
Being overprotective also doesn’t help. Alexander and Sandahl note that being overprotective is being afraid to let your kids fail or feel painful emotions. It’s avoiding conflict and fulfilling your child’s every wish. It’s hiding your own emotions, showing a façade of everything is totally fine. Which makes it tougher for kids to read others’ emotions and thereby practice empathy. It also makes it tougher to connect to their own feelings. If we can’t tolerate our own emotions, how can we sit with others as they experience theirs?
Below are three valuable tips from The Danish Way of Parenting for helping your child develop empathy.
Understand your own empathy.
- What does empathy mean to me?
- What does empathy mean to my partner?
- How judgmental am I of myself?
- How judgmental am I of others?
- How judgmental is my partner of others?
- How can I change my language so it reflects more empathy and less judgment?
Understand others — without judging them.
“Practice understanding others instead of shaming them,” Alexander and Sandahl write. Pay attention to how you think or talk about others (whether it’s in front of your kids or not). We tend to go into judgmental mode pretty quickly. Instead practice putting yourself in the other person’s shoes. How does this shift your perspective?
Help your child identify emotions.
Help your child to notice others’ emotions and their own emotions. Ask them questions, again, without inserting your own judgments. Alexander and Sandahl include these examples: “Sally was angry? Why was she angry? What happened? What do you think about what happened?” “Aw, can you see Victor is crying? Why do you think he is crying?” “I can see you are upset. Can you try to tell me why?”
Those are in contrast to these judgmental statements: “She shouldn’t have been angry and done that.” “Don’t be like that. There is no reason to be angry.” “Why is she angry? That is ridiculous!” “You should be happy!”
You also might want to borrow some tools from Danish schools. In the country’s mandatory national program, “Step by Step,” kids are taught how to read facial expressions and discuss emotions, without judging them. For instance, they look at photos of other kids expressing emotions — such as sadness, happiness and fear — and practice identifying them. In another program, CAT-kit, kids use measuring sticks to identify the intensity of emotions and draw the physical sensations and locations of their emotions on images of the body.
Empathy takes practice. Both for you and your kids. Pay attention to your words. Pay attention to how you talk about emotions with your children and how you talk about other kids. Pay attention to whether you let your kids feel whatever they’re feeling.
Isn’t it funny how the lessons we’re trying to teach our kids are usually the ones we, too, need to learn?