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The art of raising an empathetic child

Written by Genie Price

It should be on every parent’s agenda to want to teach their children how to care for and respect others, and for many, it is a dream come true to see their children reach such a milestone that is displaying empathy.

Wouldn’t you want to teach your child about the art of empathy? If so, how do you teach your youngling?

What is empathy and why is it important?

Empathy is a complex concept and a difficult skill to master.  One which you just don’t “get” given.  At its simplest, it is – instead of ‘feeling for’ someone, you are ‘feeling with’ that person as if you are experiencing it yourself.

Understanding and showing empathy is the result of many social-emotional skills that started developing in the first years of life. Such skills brought about by the processes involved in securing relationships and maintaining friendships and identifying yourself as a separate individual from someone else.

It is not always easy or even possible to emphasise with others all the time – and for toddlers, it cannot be expected to happen, however by building on from these skills, you can start to work towards placing the essential stepping stones to reach your goal.

Ultimately the goal is to have raise children who are mindful of others and not only accept diversity but nurture it’s growth also.

Research states displaying empathy towards others prevents bullying and other cruel behaviours. This is confirmed by Harvard Universities’ Richard Weissbourd and Stephanie Jones who insist that empathy is “at the heart of what it means to be human”… who go on to discuss it’s necessity in nurturing strong personal and professional relationships and displaying ethical behaviours.

Being empathetic can help:

  • Build positive connections with others
  • With acceptance of diversity and culture
  • With respecting others emotions and how to respond appropriately
  • Create a positive, caring environment

Toddlers aged 18-24 months are more likely to start displaying empathetic responses. It’s at this age where toddlers develop “theory of mind” and first realise that they have their own thoughts and feelings, and that others around them have their own identity also, which may be different. Making this age an ideal place to start creating the masterpiece.

Pre-requisites to developing empathy

In order to start gaining deeper knowledge and meaning towards being empathetic, your child will need to:

  • Understand that they are a separate individual from another
  • Understand that others have different thoughts and feelings from him
  • Recognises common feelings that most people experience – happiness, surprise, anger, disappointment, sadness, etc
  • Can identify which response might be appropriate or comforting in a particular situation – such as offering his friend a favourite toy or teddy bear when upset

How can you help?

As adults, we recognise the world is a cruel place, and for most, the aim of parenting is to instil life-long values and beliefs in their children. This is in order to help contribute to a more positive society as children grow and develop.

Parents should consider the following suggestions as for ways to increase their child’s empathetic nature.

Role model appropriate behaviours –

All children, especially infants learn by imitation. Therefore, to help establish a culture of empathy, you need to display behaviours you want your children to see, and therefore learn.

  • Use positive language and actions which are empathetic in nature
  • Comfort your own and other people’s children when they are hurt
  • Show your child that you “feel” sad when someone is hurt. Talk about these feelings with each other
  • Join in on fundraising events or donate time to a community project and get your children to join in (as they get older)

Play games that encourage co-operation and considering others –

  • Play games in pairs or as a family unit – this will help your children to understand co-operation and turn taking, which in turn encourages patience also

Use “I” messages – 

  • Using communication that uses the word “I” a lot will help your child develop self-awareness – “I don’t like it when you hit me because it hurts.”

Support children to develop positive friendships 

  • Give your child support in social situations. This will help them to develop an awareness of their own feelings and that of others
  • Encourage positive interactions at these times and any other times where groups or peers are present
  • Guide them to praise others, and recognise another child’s strengths

Help your child to understand their own feelings and that of others  

  • Ensure that your child understands what is happening to their bodies and that of others when they are sad, happy, or angry.
  • Help to validate these feelings by talking to your child at these distressing times – explaining that some actions and language used can negatively affect others – “How would you feel if……?”

Reconsider the words “I’m sorry”-

  • We often insist that our toddlers and young children say “I’m sorry” as a way for them to take responsibility for their actions. However, toddlers especially don’t fully understand what these words mean. While it may feel “right” to us, for them to say “Sorry”, it doesn’t necessarily help toddlers learn empathy. A more meaningful approach is to say “Ella is hurt, shall we see if she is ok?”

Be patient:

As with any art form, practice makes perfect.

  • Practice patience at the times your child is learning all the while still empowering them to make discoveries about themselves throughout the process
  • All toddlers and children will learn in their own time

Although other species have the capacity for empathy, the human ability to relate to another person’s feelings and to even act on it is what brings us together, spreads humanity and makes our world a much nicer place to live.

The goal for every parent should be to sanction our young to form positive connections and to forge friendships and love.

It is through empathy, where we understand each other’s experiences and are more prone to help each other. Who wouldn’t want that for the future of their young?

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