The Importance of Teaching Your Child Empathy
Updated: Mar 18, 2022
What exactly is empathy, and why is it so important to teach your child this concept early on in their development? Learn more about how to foster a child's emotional maturity and improve their relationships with others.
What is Empathy?
Empathy is the ability to understand what another person is feeling. It allows a person to gain better insight into situations (rather than only thinking about how THEY PERSONALLY feel about the situation), and overall become a much more understanding, caring, and compassionate human being.
What Does Empathy Look Like in Children?
With children, rather than just learning how to feel and understand what others may be experiencing in a situation, they will become aware of a few other important concepts as well:
They will begin to learn that other people have different thoughts and emotions than they do.
They will begin to recognize themselves as individuals, realizing that they too have different thoughts and emotions compared to others.
They will be able to observe situations and determine what they or someone else may be feeling in that situation.
They become more aware of the different emotions that everyone in life experiences, ranging from the basics like happiness and sadness to the more complex emotions like disappointment or confusion.
They will begin to determine the appropriate response or action to take in situations, such as when it's a good time to comfort someone or to back away and allow someone to calm down when upset.
These are concepts that nearly every child eventually begins to pick up on over time, but becoming consciously aware of exactly what empathy is and how they can apply it to help make themselves more understanding, supportive, and positive individuals can lead to a number of social and personal benefits in the home, in school, in friendships and other relationships, and many other social settings.
Why is Empathy So Important?
In a world that's only growing colder and having more bullying, distrust, and negative sentiments brewing at every level of society, it's important that we raise our little ones to fight against this hateful herd mentality and promote healthy relationships, good communication, and compassion for those around us. Not only will this help them in the present, but it will also help them in the future as they reach adulthood, too.
As children, developing empathy allows a child to function well both in the family and home environment as well as amongst peers. They learn tolerance and acceptance of the fact that other people may have different thoughts, emotions, lifestyles, or beliefs from what they're familiar with and that this is perfectly normal and perfectly okay.
Empathy also helps a child develop healthier and stronger relationships. They become much more willing to understand the people they're close to and have more ease navigating difficult situations or rough patches in those relationships due to the improved understanding and ability to empathize with a friend or family member that is struggling with something.
Additionally, learning this invaluable trait is one of the best things your child can do for their long-term mental health. By understanding the world and the people around them, children (eventual adults) will be able to regulate their emotions in response to various situations better as well as have a much better grasp of what's going on and how they can manage the situation rather than allowing themselves to immediately become overwhelmed and distressed.
Ways You Can Help Your Child Learn Empathy
Above all else, one of the best ways to help your child learn empathy is leading by example. It's absurd to think that we can simply tell our children to do one thing while doing the polar opposite ourselves and expecting that situation to somehow work out as desired. Kids aren't stupid, and they do best when surrounded by positive role models that can model the behavior and traits that we want them to emulate as well.
Here are some intentional ways you can encourage an empathetic mindset in your child:
As mentioned above, model empathy yourself. Choose to show kindness and understanding to others even when faced with rudeness or opposition.
When your child begins showing empathy towards others, make it a point to acknowledge their kind words or actions and praise them for treating others well.
Ask them questions on a regular basis that would prompt them to "put themselves in someone else's shoes." If you're watching a show or reading a book with applicable situations, ask them how they would feel if they were that character and experiencing the same things.
Not only is modeling empathy towards others one of the best ways to promote learning the concept, but also show empathy towards your child as well. Practice open communication, trust, understanding, and acceptance when your child shares something with you. Show unconditional love and tolerance, and this will significantly encourage them to do the same.
Practice identifying emotions and their causes. This can be done even at an early age to help your child begin communicating their feelings better and recognize emotions within themselves and others.
Take every opportunity you can to help your child learn self-awareness and awareness of others. The sooner they learn to identify and comprehend their own feelings, your feelings as their parent and fellow family member, and the feelings that others may be experiencing around them, the quicker their emotional maturity will develop and the better their social interactions and relationships will be.
Although empathy is something we should all strive to instill within our children, there are certain psychological conditions that may impair a child's ability to relate to others.
Emotional maturity develops at a different rate among individuals, but certain conditions such as Antisocial Personality Disorder, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, Narcissistic Personality Disorder, and Borderline Personality Disorder may cause significant struggles or even the inability to experience empathy at all.
If your child exhibits behaviors that would be indicative of a complete lack of empathy as they grow older, be sure to consult your pediatrician or trusted family physician on how to proceed with managing this issue as it can easily become problematic and have long-term consequences.