Always be Teaching Empathy to Your Children
We all want what’s best for our family and to be the best parent we can be for our children. In order to equip your children for life, you love them, teach them to read and write, brush their teeth, nourish them with healthy foods. Well, just as important as these essential tools, kids need tools to learn how to understand how their actions make others feel. Teaching empathy will make your child more compassionate and help them become more aware of their own emotions and how those emotions influence their behavior.
Teaching Emotional Literacy
Everyone knows you need to teach children the alphabet in order for them to achieve academic literacy & to succeed in school (reading literacy). Well, in order for kids to succeed in relationships and in life, they need to understand what they feel and how their feelings influence the way they behave and treat others (emotional literacy). Just like reading literacy, teaching emotional literacy is a essential to teaching empathy. Emotional literacy is a crucial life skill and key element to mental health, academic achievement and overall well-being.
Feelings are similar to waves in the ocean – they come and then they go. At the peak of a feeling or emotion, a behavior kicks in… sometimes one that ends up hurting someone else. For example, if something does not go your way, it is natural to feel disappointed. As disappointment floods in, it often converts into an action such as yelling or slamming a door. The fact is that feelings are communicated through behavior.
In other words, children behave because of the way they feel. Understanding one’s feelings and being able to express those feelings productively is a skill that needs to be taught and developed in children while teaching empathy.
Let Your Child Feel
We have a tendency to tell our children not to feel, either because we don’t want them to feel badly, we don’t understand how they could feel that way, or we just don’t feel that way ourselves. We say things like, “Don’t be shy or don’t be sad”, but the reality is, they are shy and they are sad. Just because we say “don’t be” doesn’t mean they “won’t be”!
Teaching children about what they feel, and providing effective ways for them to positively express (or deal) with their feelings is one of the greatest gifts you can give your children and family. If your child hits because he is mad, interrupts because he is excited, whines because he is disappointed, or talks back because he feels ashamed, then what he or she needs is an alternative way to express what is – that is, what he or she is feeling. Together with your child, come up with creative, positive ways of expressing each feeling to replace the negative behavior.
Get Behind the Eyes of Your Child
One of the top parenting tips for teaching empathy to children of all ages, from infants to teens, is to get behind the eyes of your child. Parenting is a life-long series of reactions: my child does this, how do I react – from middle-of-the-night crying, to temper tantrums, to teenage trials. If your child does something that demands a quick reaction, put yourselves behind the eyes of your child and think: “If I were my child, how would I want my mother/father to react?” If you do this, you’ll nearly always get it right, and your children will learn from their empathetic parents.
You are teaching empathy when you learn to get behind the eyes of your child because your child learns to get behind the eyes of others. This helps them develop the capacity to care, and the ability to get behind the eyes of another person and imagine how his/her behavior will affect another person.
A great way of teaching empathy to your child is to get them to image how other people feel. Your three-year-old pushes another child and grabs his toy; enter the parent-referee. Instead of scolding them, try asking them, “How would you feel if your friend pushed you and took your toy? You would be angry, and you might not want to play anymore.” You can help your child understand someone else’s pain this way and teach them a valuable lesson in empathy.
Situations where someone treats you disrespectfully are great opportunities for teaching empathy to your child. A store clerk who waits on you is rude and short-tempered. Instead of subjecting your child to a tirade about poor service as you walk back to the car, why not encourage compassion by discussing the reasons the clerk may have acted this way? Could she be ill, suffering from a cold or headache? Maybe her child is sick and she didn’t get much sleep last night? Part of teaching empathy is teaching our children to think compassionately. When we do this we open up a whole new world to them, a world full of real people who have needs, pain, and troubles. (Be sure to also explain that there are not always “excuses” for unpleasant behavior – that perhaps the clerk just needs to learn better customer-service skills!)