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5 Steps to Cultivate Empathy in Kids

Helping your kids be empathetic can lead to all sorts of lifelong benefits for them and short relational benefits for your family. Empathy, and specifically perspective taking, has been linked to a decrease in feelings of entitlement and greater overall life satisfaction. In my experience counseling families and couples, a lack of empathy is the most common problem underscoring the more visible conflicts that bring people to me. Almost inevitably, in the course of counseling, we will uncover that someone somewhere along the line, failed to learn the fundamentals of empathy and perspective taking. On the other hand, when both partners (or all members of a family) are willing to intentionally foster empathy, amazing restoration and reconciliation can take place.

On a more day-to-day scale, I talk about cultivating empathy everyday with parents as the primary way we can encourage positive relationships between our children and their siblings. I’m often sent emails and DMs asking how parents can “Help their kids get along better; they’re always fighting and being mean to one another.”

In a word? Empathy.

So how do we set our kids up today to be more empathetic?

Here’s my (patent pending?) five step process.

Step 1. Teach you child to RECOGNIZE emotions in others

For most of us, at first, this is going to take some very intentional observation. We know when someone is mad, sad, excited, overwhelmed, etc. but we may not know exactly HOW we know. It’s usually a combination verbal and especially non-verbal cues we pick up on that help us make an educated guess. For the sake of our kids, we have to learn to stop and ask “But HOW do I know that this person is upset? What facial expressions, body postures, and words are helping me to form that hypothesis?” Process that with your kid, get a feelings chart or book online if you want to be even more intentional. Additionally, you can use a mirror and have them notice how their OWN face changes when they pretend to feel certain ways!

Also, take a moment now to think about how many subtle nuanced emotions you likely can differentiate between. The emotion “Mad” might easily be divided in to hundreds of more subtle emotions: Overwhelmed, hurt, defensive, enraged, anxious, annoyed, resentful, jealous. Consider how you might explain these to your child as they age. I’ll be covering emotional intelligence in more detail in a future blog but suffice it to say this is important!

Step 2. Practice NOTICING other people's emotions

Kids are necessarily self-absorbed. It’s not a bad thing, it’s developmentally appropriate, but if we give them intentional opportunities to consider others emotions, you will be astounded on how well most kids take to it. The key here is to start this process with strangers; people to whom they are totally indifferent. Next time you’re out and about and you see a person or another child clearly experiencing a big emotion, ask your child “What do you think they’re feeling?” For now, you’re not asking them to speculate as to WHY they might be feeling what they are feeling, you’re simply asking them to practice their recognition of feelings. Make a game of it. See how many feelings you can find out in the world of strangers. Make a BINGO card. Have fun with it.

If you’re uncomfortable doing it out in public, you can alternatively do this while watching a show or reading a book where the characters are expressing big feelings. This, in my opinion, isn’t as effective as doing this in real time in public but do what makes sense for you and your child.

Step 3, begin to SPECULATE on what is causing certain feelings

When you see a baby crying in the grocery store ask your child “Why do you think that baby is crying?” Or “What do you think that guy is feeling? Why do you think he’s feeling that way?” Don’t be surprised if your child is caught off guard by these questions. They likely don’t go through the world exegeting the behaviors and non-verbal cues of other people yet (even though that is natural for most teens and adults). The key here is that we want to pick examples, again, that are totally independent of your child.

Additionally there is a secondary benefit here of teaching them that not every emotion we encounter has to do with us. I can’t tell you how many adults, never learned this. I have had to talk down many a fully developed adult who was highly defensive and triggered simply because the girl at Starbucks was rude, not because she secretly had it out for them, but because she was clearly just not having a good day. And in case you need to hear it today, you are not the cause of every emotion you encounter. Most people's feelings have NOTHING to do with you.

Back to your kid. They will struggle at first to come up with causes for the emotions they see. Let them struggle a little and let them give obviously incorrect answers. There are no stakes here. Eventually offer them YOUR interpretation. “I think that baby is crying because she’s reaching for the candy and the mama doesn’t want her to have it.” “I think that guy is upset because he knocked over that end cap with his cart and now there is a big mess.” Or maybe even “I think that man might just not be having a very good day.” Your child may disagree with you or not respond at all but don’t force it. Just move on. They stored it in their little growing empathy database.

Step 4, offer your child an opportunity to PERSPECTIVE TAKE

Now it's time to help them put themselves in someone else's shoes. Use phrases like “How would you feel if you wanted candy and mom said no?” Or “Do you ever get frustrated when you make a mess like that man?” These moments often become opportunities for your child to play imaginatively with the prompt you offered or spin a narrative account of something that happened to them in the past. LEAN IN! Now you’re not only growing their empathy and emotional intelligence for relationships and self-reflection, you’re also developing their neural cortex! Stay in the story with them, asking good questions, until it comes to a natural conclusion. Then reflect back on the initial prompt. “So it sounds like you DO know what it’s like to be upset when you make a mess and then have to clean it up. I bet that’s just what that man was experiencing too.” Boom. Neural pathway formed.

Step 5. apply it all to the FAMILY system

Up to this point, there have been no relational stakes to your child’s empathy training. That’s been intentional. We want them to get the practice “out there” before the highly personal world of siblings and parents. Here too you might choose to start with an easier parent than jumping to a close sibling (who will be the hardest person in the ENTIRE WORLD for your child to perspective take with, even into adulthood). Now is the time to finally point out how taking a toy away from a younger sibling or an unthoughtful or mean word might be affecting their sibling. Use phrases that begin with an objective observation about their action and then ask a follow up question based on their empathy practice.

"I see you took that toy your little brother is playing with. Can you tell how he feels about that? How would if feel to you if someone bigger than you took a toy you were playing with?"\

Don't fall back into habits of telling them the answers to these questions. If you've done enough "out there" practice, even if they refuse in the moment to respond to you, they're still learning how their actions affect others and how others might be feeling... and thats the goal!

Eventually, if you continue this process, out in the world and in the home, you’re going to start hearing “I think my teacher Ms. Green was sad about something today” and “My friend was so mad at lunch about his mom forgetting to pack him cookies. I would have been upset too.” And that means you have a new tool in your parenting tool belt and a child well on the way to becoming their best/healthiest, whole self.

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