By David Jones
Empathy is a vital piece of any relationship puzzle.
If we can’t understand how a person feels, they can become something we simply aren’t connected to. Then there are folks on the other end who get swamped by other people’s feelings. I’m in that category, and it can be tough to stay in a crowded room.
Somewhere between the two there’s got to be a way to help our children develop and maintain a healthy empathy for others and for themselves.
Here are some mindful suggestions about helping build empathy across the ages:
It never hurts to do a little self-diagnostic. I find my empathy is a little thin for some folks sometimes, so it’s good for me to give attention to those areas.
Be the empathy you want to see.
When we’re talking about raising children, the parents are the main role models. Children learn from parental examples (even if parents say one thing and do another).
Transparency and open communication are useful.
If a parent doesn’t have sufficient empathy to model (or doesn’t feel like they have), letting children know they struggle sometimes too can help the child connect model behavior and teaching. It also helps children to not feel so bad or alone if their empathy doesn’t always hit the mark.
Consider age-appropriate lessons:
Young children often have a real natural capacity for empathy.
At this stage, it’s good to commend empathetic behavior when they show it. Also, make sure you give a reason behind why you liked their behavior, as the “why” helps the lesson sink in, helping kids associate the act and its beneficial result.
School aged children start to really develop biases.
This in and of itself isn’t bad, but even folks they should be careful around deserve compassion and empathy even while avoiding having much interaction with them. It can help reduce a judgmental approach to how children see others, as well as showing them how balanced kindness can help themselves and others. Also, help children by asking them about how they would feel if they were in the person’s shoes in some situation.
Teens and older kids have an established understanding of the world around them.
It might be good to ask them about how empathy could affect them and those around them, particularly in relationships. This can include working through scenarios from their own past—“When that happened how did you feel? How do you feel about it now?” Then relate it to how they view and treat others.
At all ages it helps to discuss related issues such as emotions.
Most reactions we have when someone is expressing empathy or a lack of empathy are emotional in nature. Empathy may run into issues, and it can leave a child feeling hurt, sad, angry, and even lost.
If a child of any age starts having trouble with feeling for others too strongly, to the point it starts having a harmful mental/emotional impact, work on labeling and categorizing empathy in how strongly it impacts them.
Commend them for empathy but then work on helping them develop buffers or detachment so they can respond with empathy without drowning in it. This might include centering meditation or coping strategies when they feel overwhelmed.
As always, turn to the library, professionals, or the internet for help understanding and helping your child with the struggles they face.
It’s okay to not know, and it’s fine to say so. “I’m not sure what to do to help, but I’m going to try and find out.”
Sometimes just knowing someone is there for us, taking our issues seriously, and is intent on helping us find answers is at least half the victory. That’s true for children, their parents and really anyone.
Communicate a lot.
Anytime differences in individuals come up in conversation, we can use it as a teaching moment. Being curious about the differences of others can open the door to understanding folks better, to seeing how differences don’t stop them from being a person, just like we and our children as people. We all suffer, we all laugh, we all stare at the stars and watch animals doing animal stuff.
Finally, healthy empathy isn’t an end but a step towards having a better understanding of ourselves, our world, and our place in it. It strengthens relationships and those common bonds we share with others all over the world. It opens avenues for compassion and kindness, and helps us maintain an even balance between not caring and caring too much.
We could all stand to work on our empathy sometimes. We might find ourselves breathing a little easier and having more stable connections in life as a result.
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