Building The Capacity for Empathy

The capacity for empathy begins to develop about four years old when children recognize the other person’s mind may be different than theirs. Before then a child may appear kind and notice the feelings of an other, but usually that’s because they see in the other person what they feel. They presume what they feel, the other person does, too. If they are correct, then they appear empathic but it won’t be a consistent capacity.

However, learning empathy when a child is four is optimal as we know that very often kids are mean to each other and only think of themselves due to egocentricity. The empathic child usually has an empathic parent to learn from. If the parent hasn’t developed this emotional capacity themselves they are likely to misread others’ minds including their child’s. Further, they may even project their own feelings on to those they interact with. This leads to a great deal of misinterpretations of others’ intentions.

Empathic teachers, coaches, and instructors of various activities outside of school can also be models for empathy making up in part for what a parent lacks. School curricula nhave become more focused on teaching young children beginning in first grade to have regard for other children’s feelings. This has come at the same time that there is much more of a focus in schools on bullying.

Tips for Parents to Teach their Kids Empathy

  1. When reading a story or watching a movie, ask your child what they think the characters feel. You may or may not agree so without any judgment of your child or criticism of their viewpoint, discuss the various feelings that could be possible.
  2. Make feeling language part of the vocabulary of family members at as young an age as possible. Use and explain the meaning of words that describe emotions. Begin with happy, sad, upset and mad but then add more complex feelings to  such as frustrated, disappointed, puzzled, confused, worried, stubborn and uncompromising.
  3. Keep the bar for complex vocabulary high for most kids so that by the time they are teens and have the ability for abstract thinking, they are more and more capable of understanding that their friends and acquaintances may think and feel quite differently than what they experience.
  4. Empathic teens are much less likely to rebel vigorously or push away their parents because they have grown to expect their parents want to know their emotions and both parents and kids have the vocabulary to express themselves with an emotional intelligence.

Tips for Parents to Increase their Capacity for Empathy

  1. Read about Parental Intelligence, an approach to parenting that prizes self-reflection as well as understanding your child’s mind.
  2. Step back when you encounter a puzzling behavior before jumping to call it “bad.” Instead, consider that the behavior is a communication with meaning. If you are willing to take your time and consider first how you feel when your child behaves in a puzzling way (self-reflection) you will then be more prepared to use those feelings to try and comprehend what your child is feeling as well. Often the way we feel when our child acts out is a clue to how they’re feeling inside.
  3. Instead of reacting quickly with consequences to a behavior you don’t like, first learn what the behavior is telling you. Your child is unable at that time to verbalize how they feel so they use action to communicate. It’s our job as parents to tell them we want to understand their points of view and feelings even if it hurts our feelings.
  4. Working at understanding with your child  their worries and fears brings parents and kids closer together from childhood through adolescence. The earlier you start to have regard for your child’s emotions the sooner they learn to trust you care enough to figure them out.

The capacity for empathy for both parent and child takes time and patience. Sometimes. extraordinary patience. But it pays off in the long run because your child and you are much more capable of the ultimate gain, learning to really love each other in cheerful and troubled times.