Developing Empathy

The soccer game was well underway and the score was tied when Jeremy tripped and fell, scraping his elbow badly enough to bleed and twisting his ankle. He began to cry. A boy from the opposing team immediately ran to him, asking, "Are you ok?" Another child, a teammate, looked impatient, grumbling to himself, "Geez, let's just keep going." A child who was watching the game began to laugh when Jeremy fell, poking her neighbor to get her to look.

Empathy. Do some children just naturally have an empathetic response while others do not? And, if that's the case, how can parents help children learn to empathize more readily?

According to the American Heritage Dictionary, empathy is the "identification with and understanding of another's situation, feelings, and motives." Presumably, all human beings are born with the facility to empathize with others. In fact, it may be that empathy itself exists to some degree at birth. For example, if there is a nursery full of infants in cribs, and one begins to cry, it's not unusual for all of the infants to begin to cry as well. Does this mean that infants actually "understand" the other baby's feelings? Perhaps not, but on some basic level, there is clearly a connection to the crying baby's distress. But if children are born with some connection to another's feelings, then what happens to them that creates a situation such as that described above, where children they in very different ways - from empathetic to callous -- when another child is clearly hurt?

The development of empathy is complex, and has to do with environmental factors as well as the personality traits of an individual. It is not, however, fixed, and can be influenced by how we, as parents, respond to life situations as well as how we communicate with our children. Let's take a look at some of the ways that we can help our children become empathetic.

* Role model empathy. Children who are raised in empathetic households are far more likely to engage empathetically themselves. Look for daily opportunities to express empathy in front of your children. For example, if you read a news article that touches you in some way, don't hesitate to communicate that aloud: "Boy, I really identify with that person," you could say, "I've been in similar situations myself. He must feel really disappointed / sad / angry."

* Use feeling words. Some children grow up in households where parents feel as though it is "weak" to admit to having negative feelings. Often these children learn to repress their own feelings about situations. In order for children to be able to express empathy towards others, they must first acknowledge and feel comfortable with their own feelings. When parents become comfortable using feeling words in front of their children, they communicate that everyone has feelings, allowing children to relate to another's feelings more readily.

* Avoid lecturing. Sometimes, in an effort to get a child to empathize with someone else, parents will resort to "lecturing." This might sound like, "Look how you made him feel. Can't you see how sad he is? How would you feel if someone did that to you?" This is an excellent example of "teaching the right lesson in the wrong way." Lecturing only causes a child to tune his parents out. If we want our children to learn to empathize, we must understand that empathy develops for others only when a child first feels understood himself.

* Understand your child's feelings - even in conflict! Although it may seem counter-intuitive, when parents are able to empathize with their children during a conflict, this is the time when the greatest potential for the development of true empathy occurs. By not creating a "win-lose" or "your feelings vs. his feelings" situation, we make room for all feelings. If a child is faced with a situation where empathy for someone else means that his own feelings are neglected or made "wrong" he will almost always choose not to empathize, in order to preserve his own sense of dignity and self-esteem. What does this sound like? It merely means naming the feelings we see: "Gee, you seem really angry, and Samantha, you seem really hurt." Or, "I see some big feelings here. Gregory, you look pretty frustrated, and George, it looks like you're disappointed." Keeping our own judgments out of children's conflict frees our children to see BOTH sides of the situation, as well as all the feelings - their own and the other person's as well.

What if, however, in spite of the tips above, we overhear our children communicating in non-empathetic ways: laughing at another's pain, or expressing disgust and frustration, as the children did at the soccer game? Again, the most important thing to remember is that if we succumb to our instincts and lecture our child in that moment, we will probably be working against, rather than for, the development of empathy. Instead of lecturing, try expressing your own feelings in the situation, such as: "Oh no, he must really be hurting. I wonder if I should go down there and try to help." Or, wait until later in the day and bring up the situation in retrospect: "Boy, I really felt badly for Jeremy today. I think he not only hurt himself, but he seemed really upset and disappointed that he couldn't finish the game. I know how much he likes soccer - it must have been hard for him." You can even ask your child if they've ever had something like that happen to them before - where they felt disappointed about not being able to do something or finish something that they enjoy.

When we bring feelings into our homes, into our language, into our lives with our children, we help them to build upon their initial, natural connection to other human beings.