As adults, we may take empathy for granted. We have years of experience seeing a situation from someone else’s perspective, and caring about others. However, empathy is a skill that is learned and takes practice to develop.
For children, empathy is an especially important skill to learn. It is the basis for other life skills such as forming strong relationships, conflict resolution, gratitude and behaving ethically to others.
A study at the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley showed that 18-month-old children were already developing the foundations of empathy, and by age four they were beginning to consider other people’s feelings in relation to their own.
Here are some tips to encourage empathy in your child.
- Lead by example. As a parent, your actions and words have a strong impact on your child. Some ways you can model empathy include: Making sure your child sees you being kind to others, asking your child how they think their favorite book or movie character feels in a tough situation, or asking your child about their own feelings and responding with care and compassion.
- Respect your child’s feelings. It goes without saying that your child cannot learn to respect the feelings of others if they do not receive that same respect themselves. Make sure your child knows that they can count on you to help them work through their negative emotions, and provide emotional support. A study by Drs. Everett Waters, Judith Wippman and L. Alan Sroufe showed that children who could count on their caregivers for emotional support were more likely to sympathize with and help others.
- Show empathy in pretend play. Pretend play is an ideal time to practice empathy, as your child is already imagining the thoughts and feelings of others, even if it’s just their favorite stuffed animal. You can help your child by asking questions about what their toy or doll is doing, feeling, and thinking – and why.
- Read books that demonstrate empathy. Children love to read stories and look at picture books, and there are several books available that teach empathy. For example, you and your child may want to select some empathy-focused books from this list created by Common Sense Media.
- Help your child find common ground. Humans are naturally inclined to feel empathy for someone who is similar to them. However, you can show your child that they can have something in common with someone who might look, act, or think differently from them. You can help your child find common ground with others, whether it’s a favorite song, similar personalities, or a comparable life experience. This is also a good way to discourage sibling rivalry.
- Expose your child to a variety of people. Finding common ground amongst a wide variety of people can be easier when your child is exposed to different cultures and beliefs in a non-judgmental way. Research has shown that limited exposure to people who are different from us is one of the biggest predictors of racial prejudice and lack of empathy.
Developing empathy is an important skill for your child to develop. However, it will take time, patience, and a positive attitude. With these tips, you can build the foundations of empathy for your child, which they can continue to build upon throughout their life.