HOW YOU CAN HELP
A parent models a lot of who a child becomes, and with empathy and kindness it is no different. There are ways that you can guide your child to develop the ability to empathise. Educational psychologist Cara Blackie has some top tips for you to try out:
EMPATHISE WITH YOUR CHILD Even before your baby is able to speak, you can teach him lessons in empathy by mirroring his facial expressions. He will feel deeply understood if you pull a sad face when he’s hurt, or raise your eyebrows and smile when he is happy and having fun. Don’t forget to alter your tone of voice, as this will also communicate your empathy. For example, gently say: “Are you feeling scared of that dog? He is a nice dog but he is barking really loud. That can be scary. I will hold you until he walks away.”
NEVER MAKE YOUR CHILD FEEL ASHAMED OF WHAT HE’S FEELING Even saying something as simple as, “Oh don’t be silly, it’s just a dog!” tells your child that his emotions are not acceptable.
GIVE NAMES TO FEELINGS Describe your own and other people’s feelings by naming them for your child. “Jack is feeling sad because you took his toy car. Please give his car back and then you choose another one to play with,” is a good example of this. Naming feelings helps your child experience a wide range of feelings.
DEAL WITH DIFFICULT EMOTIONS When you notice your child is sad, angry, or disappointed, of course you want to try and fix it right away, to protect him from any pain. However, these feelings are part of life that children need to learn to cope with. In fact, labelling and validating difficult emotions actually helps children learn to handle them: “You are really mad that I turned off the TV. I understand. You love watching your animal show and it’s okay to feel angry. When you have finished being cross you can choose to help me make a yummy lunch or play in the kitchen while mommy makes our sandwiches.” This approach also teaches your child to empathise with others who are experiencing difficult feelings.
SHOW EMPATHY YOURSELF Being a good role model may be the most powerful way to teach empathy. When your child sees how you respond to him or to others, he learns what real empathy is.
USE PRETEND PLAY AND READ BOOKS ON FEELINGS Talk with your child about feelings and empathy as you play and read. Discuss how you think the characters are feeling throughout the story, or role play different emotions and reactions to them in a pretend game.