Empathy—the ability or effort to comprehend a distressing situation and to recognize another's emotions and assume that person's perspective.
It's no secret that empathy has declined in our society through the years. We can see how AI and virtual reality are becoming a real reality for our kids through their social media platforms, selfies with filters, online chatting about topics that are not age appropriate and so on. Children are finding the virtual reality to be a safe place for them to push their limits and see who they can be, or pretend to be.
As a mom of two children under 7 and as a teacher, I can see how children look up to the adults in their life and want to be able to do the things they do, or pretend to do. If the adults in their life are also on social media, using filters, living a lifestyle that is not realistic or body shaming themselves then their children are a reflection of that and at a much younger and more vulnerable stage.
I recently read the book Unselfie by Michele Borba and learned that empathy in young children is a skill that can be cultivated and learned even before your child can talk. This skill can help with social and emotional development, conflict resolution, prosocial behavior, emotional regulation, inclusion and diversity and academic success.
Children who display positive initiation, such as empathy behaviours, experience more positive responses by peers and they are played with more often.
Here are some benefits of having an empathetic child:
1. They can recognize feelings
2. They have moral identity
3. They understand the needs of others
4. They have a moral imagination
5. They can keep their cool
6. They practice kindness
7. They think "us" not "them"
8. They want to make a difference
Here are some ways you can develop empathy in your child:
Empathize with your child. For example, “Are you feeling scared of going down that big side? It's bigger than other slides you have been on but it works the same way. It can be scary to look at it for the first time. I will wait for you right here and catch you, or I can go on it first."
Talk about others’ feelings. For example, “Alex is feeling sad because you took his truck. He wasn't done with it yet. Let's give it back to him and we can find another toy to play with until Alex is done with that one."
Suggest how children can show empathy. For example, “It looks like Mary got a scratch on her knee from that fall, let's see if we have any band-aids in our stroller!”
Read stories about feelings. The Color Monster; The Boy with Big Feelings; The Crayons Book Of Feelings; My Body Sends A Signal;
Be a role model. Every moment is a teacheable moment with your child. We are always being watched and they are always learning from us. So when a situation arises, treat it like a special moment where you would want your child to act exactly like you are.
Use “I” messages. "I" messages model self-awareness and are very important for childreno practice. "I feel sad. I feel happy about _. I want_. I need_.
Validate your child’s difficult emotions. I hear this every day at the playground when a child falls, gets upset or is having a difficult moment. "It's okay" "Nothing happened" "You are fine" "Get up, stop crying" "There is no reason to cry". Although it may seem like this to you, they are really feeling those feelings. They are scared, sad, anxious and all of their feelings are like a big ball of yarn that's been tangled- they need you to help them untangle it. Here is what you can do to help minimize the crying and help your child understand what happened.
1. Run through the moments leading up to the incident like a story line. "I saw you did this, and then that happened"
2. Validate their feelings. "I see you are feeling sad" "Was that scary" Through teaching I have learned a great skill called "Name is to Tame it". It's exactly what it sounds like-emotions can run WILD when we don't know what to call them or what to label them. Help your child label their emotions so they can make sense of what is going on.
3. Encourage them to try the activity again if they are feeling calm or redirect them to a new comfort/safe activity they enjoy.
Get into pretend play! Kids love pretend play, period. Whether you are holding a stuffed animal, a toy tea cup or a box that is now a space ship- make the moments you play together count. Create a story where the stuffed animal is playing and all of the sudden falls and get a boo-boo; "What should we do now? He looks hurt" "Let's help him!". Maybe the space ship lands on an alien planet and the aliens look shy and afraid- "We come in peace! Here, we can share our toys with you!" "Let's teach the aliens how we share".
Limit forcing your child to say “I’m sorry.” Instead, focus on the feelings that are being created in that moment. Did your child run into another child at the playground? Focus on leading questions like "He looks like he really hurt his leg, let's ask him if he is okay" "Let's help him up" or "He looks sad, do you think he is in pain? Let's see how we can help him feel better".
Focusing on other's feelings instead of a cold cut forced "I'm sorry" is what will help you child make the connection between his actions and outcomes. This will also help them develop more friendships at the playground and at home.
I loved reading the book UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World by Michele Borba. I would recommend this to all parents as a good read.