It’s that time of year when a lot of our little ones will be heading to school for the first time or participating in homeschool group activities. This can really stir up a lot of emotions and sometimes even fear in our children, so it’s the perfect time to discuss emotions and empathy for others. This is our first year of homeschooling and we have already begun to meet up regularly with other homeschoolers for activities and play dates.
It never fails that when a minimum of two children get together, there will be misunderstandings and miscommunication. They can be playing fantastically and then like a cat fight out of nowhere, they’re upset and tears are flowing.
While the concept of empathy cannot be fully comprehended by a child’s brain until they are closer to 8 or 9 years old, there are things we can do to begin encouraging and fostering empathy in young children.
Research at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence focuses on the power of emotions to create a more effective and compassionate society. Kleenex® brand sponsored a social experiment and workshop led by Lori Nathanson, PhD, and Shauna Tominey, PhD, researchers at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, and it was this research that demonstrated that when we give kids the tools to care and show empathy, they will, happily.
Here are 7 ways you can teach empathy to young children.
1. Model empathy to others
We all know that our kids seem to watch and mimic our every move! One way we can model empathy to others in front of our children is by speaking aloud what others might be feeling.
When we’re at the library and we have a pile of books on the ground, I might say “I’m going to pick these books up because it will probably make the librarian feel like we don’t care about her if we leave them here like this.”
I try to find circumstances like this when I could explain to my kids what our actions might make another person feel so they can begin to understand the concept that their actions affect others.
2. Empathize with your child
Like with any quality we hope to foster in our children, we need to show it to them first so they can develop the quality themselves. When your child is upset, you can say things like “I can see you’re really angry right now, that must’ve really hurt your feelings when your brother broke your Lego tower” (a daily occurrence around here).
I try to see things from their perspective and speak that out loud so they know that I’m considering their feelings in tough situations. I know that if I do this consistently, when they are older they’ll do it with other people.
3. Discuss and validate emotions with your child
Books and videos are a great way to engage young children when learning about empathy and emotions. Kleenex® shared a great video this month geared towards children’s feelings about starting middle school and their fears around that. Even though my son is only 5, he was really captivated by the young teens discussing their emotions.
I also liked that the video showed older boys discussing their feelings of fear or loneliness, because sometimes our culture has a way of making boys feel like they should be tough, so I was happy for my son to be able to see older boys expressing vulnerable emotions and that it’s normal to feel that way.
Like I said above about empathizing with your child, when discussing emotions with them it’s important to label emotions so children can identify their own feelings, and to also validate the way they feel.
Sometimes I have caught myself trying to get my child to “just be happy” and that’s not healthy. I try to remember that in order to be happy again, they have to process the emotion they’re feeling in the moment and know that it’s okay to be feeling it. I don’t want them growing up and pushing away their feelings because their inner voice tells them they just need to “get over it and be happy”.
4. Use play to teach empathy
This is a great way to help children understand empathy because they learn best through play. Since children love pretend play and mimicking social scenarios, it’s a perfect opportunity to speak aloud what all of the characters could be feeling.
Sometimes it’s nice to play out a scenario that your child has recently experienced and was confused or startled by, like a child hitting them or another child. You can think up different scenarios for how that child might’ve been feeling and how it made your child feel through the pretend characters you’re playing with.
5. Describe other children’s feelings to your child
When one of my boys upsets another child, I try to explain to them what the other child could be feeling. My oldest son doesn’t like his Lego creations messed with at all after he’s built them and it is tantrum city if his little brother accidentally breaks them.
So when he wants to play with another child’s toy and the child reacts similar to how he does with his Legos, I remind him about how he feels when people touch his Legos and that this child feels the same way about their toys. I can see it in his face that he hadn’t even considered that aspect (because he’s only 5), so it really helps a child to be guided and shown another’s perspective.
6. Point out kindness
Without overdoing it, I like to point out the kind acts by my children when they do something for one another. If my little one grabs an extra water out of the fridge for his brother, I’ll say out loud “Well that was very nice of you Isaac to think about your brother being thirsty and needing some water too.”
Children are naturally kindhearted, so point it out and praise them every so often when you see them doing kind things for others. It encourages them to keep doing it!
7. Encourage them to think of others
One of the sweetest things my boys have received have been letters from their friends. They’ve gotten little drawings and personalized birthday invitations from their friends that just had scribble marks (because they’re all under 5!) and my boys faces just lit up.
Children love to make things for others, so we can encourage them to make things for others when someone’s feelings are hurt, or when someone is sick, or when they themselves are upset and would like to express themselves through writing or art.
Those are my 7 tips for teaching empathy to young children; is there anything you do that encourages your children to be empathic towards others? Please comment below, I’d love to hear about it.
I was selected for this opportunity as a member of Clever Girls and the content and opinions expressed here are all my own.