by Kathy Eugster, MA
Empathy is the ability to understand others’ feelings and perspectives. It is important because it helps us respond appropriately to and build social connections with others. Empathy is a skill that can be learned, practiced, and developed. But to learn about empathy, you first need to be shown empathy from others. That is why it is so important for parents to show empathy to their children on a regular and consistent basis. Showing empathy to your child is also important in order to develop a strong and healthy parent-child relationship.
How can you show empathy towards your child? By providing an environment of understanding and acceptance. Pay attention to, watch, and listen to your child. Then communicate your understanding and acceptance to your child.
- Feeling understood is a basic human need and children need to feel understood by their parents. The important part of showing empathy to your child is that you want to pick up on how your child is feeling without having to ask her directly, “How are you feeling?”
- Feeling accepted is also a basic human need and parents should show acceptance towards their children in various situations. Of course, inappropriate behaviors would not be accepted, but other things your child does, feels, or says can be acknowledged and accepted by you rather than being evaluated or corrected by you. Empathy is important when teaching your child because teaching means directing, instructing, judging, and correcting your child. Empathy balances off teaching
3 Quick and Simple Exercises to Encourage Empathy in Your Child
Here are 3 exercises that you can do at any time throughout the day, and if you want, could take less than a minute to do. By doing these exercises, you are showing empathy to your child. These exercises will get you into the habit of paying attention, noticing objectively, and communicating in a non-judgemental manner your understanding and acceptance of your child’s experience.
Empathy Exercise #1: Describe your child’s actions.
Watch your child and, when he is engaged in play independently, describe objectively what you see your child doing and what is happening in the play. Describe what you see neutrally and objectively, without trying to interpret what is happening. These are called Describing Statements. It is as if you are describing to someone in another room what your child is doing and what is happening in the play.
“You are building a tower with those blocks.”
“You’re putting the pirate in the boat.”
“That little puppy is going to bed.”
“That dragon is flying up high.”
Space your Describing Statements out so that there are no long, uncomfortable silences, but also so that you are not making the statements quickly one right after the other.
Also, keep the following in mind:
- do not tell your child what to do or not do (unless you notice unsafe or destructive behavior)
- do not make any suggestions
- do not make any judgements
- do not teach or correct your child
- do not ask questions to your child
Empathy Exercise #2: Identify your child’s feelings.
Watch your child throughout the day and when you notice a particular feeling coming up in your child, identify that feeling by making a Feelings Identification Statement. To do this, think to yourself what your child is feeling or the feeling she is expressing through play, then communicate out loud the feeling that you notice.
“You’re feeling happy that you found your ball.”
“I can see you’re feeling sad that your tower fell over.”
“It looks like that pirate is feeling scared.”
“That dragon seems to be feeling very angry.”
Remember to refrain from asking any questions to your child about how she is feeling or how the toys are feeling. Even though your child may not directly say she is feeling a certain way or the toy is feeling a certain way, it is up to you to use your empathy skills to identify the feeling and communicate your understanding to her.
Additionally, don’t make any judgements on the feelings that are coming up. You are responding in an objective and non-judgemental manner to what you are noticing.
Notice how your child responds to your Feelings Identification Statement:
- Your child may not respond at all. That is fine. You have done your best to identify the feeling that came up and chances are good that if your child just keeps on playing, the feeling you identified was correct. No need to do anything else.
- Your child may agree with your Feelings Identification Statement. That’s great since you got it right and your child has confirmed this. Again, no need to do anything else.
- Your child may disagree with your Feelings Identification Statement. That’s great also, because your child is feeling comfortable enough to let you know exactly how he is feeling. You can acknowledge to your chid that you got the feeling wrong and thank him for correcting you.
Keep track of the feelings you have identified for your child for several days. Make sure you are identifying both comfortable and uncomfortable feelings.
It is especially important for parents to have a well developed feelings or emotional vocabulary in order to be able to identify a variety of feelings for their children. Please see my Blog Identifying Feelings: Giving Your Child a Feelings or Emotional Vocabulary to give you an idea of some of the common feelings that come up for children.
Empathy Exercise #3: Paraphrase what your child tells you.
Throughout the day, be attentive to your child and notice when he tells you something. It could be about something happening in a play situation. It could be something that has happened in real life. After your child has finished talking, paraphrase back to your child what he has just told you. You are not changing the meaning of what your child told you, you are just repeating it using different words.
Child says, hiding her dragon toy under a pillow: “This dragon is hiding because he is scared of the other dragon.” Parent paraphrases: “That dragon hiding under the pillow is scared of the other dragon.”
Child says as he wraps his stuffed dog in a blanket: “Doggie is really cold so he needs to be wrapped up first and then I’m going to put him in his bed.” Parent paraphrases: “You’re going to put Doggie to bed, but first you’re going to wrap Doggie up to keep him warm.”
Also, refrain from asking any questions to your child about what he told you. And please, don’t suggest anything, approve or disapprove of anything, or correct anything your child tells you. You are responding in an objective and non-judgemental manner to what your child is telling you.
Notice how your child responds to your paraphrasing. Does your child continue to tell you more? If so, keep paraphrasing and see how long you can keep the conversation going just by paraphrasing back to your child what he has told you.
Keep track over several days of these interactions where your child is telling you something and you are paraphrasing back. Are you having one or two back and forth interactions between you and your child? Are the back and forth interactions getting longer?
To help your child develop his own empathy skills, you need to show empathy to him. To show your child empathy, here are 3 things you can do:
- Describe your child’s actions
- Identify feelings your child expresses
- Paraphrase what your child tells you
By using the above 3 skills, you are providing your child with an environment of acceptance and understanding, which is so very valuable for many aspects of your child’s healthy development.
Copyright Kathy Eugster, MA, 2022.
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