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Empathy: what we'd all love our kids to have in abundance

Updated: Feb 23, 2021

Empathy...what is it?

The capacity to feel and understand what another person is experiencing from their point of view (be able to place yourself in someone else’s shoes and feel what it is like).

Main attributes of empathy -

  • Cognitive - to know how the other person is feeling and what they might be thinking

  • Emotional - to “feel” the other person’s feelings

  • Non-judgemental - valuing the other person’s experience

  • Compassionate - being moved to help another person in response to understanding their thoughts/feelings

Why is it critical to support our children in growing their capacity for empathy?

  • Helps them develop healthy relationships

  • Grows kindness

  • Minimises the likelihood of kids engaging in bullying behaviour (including cyber bullying)

  • Builds courage to be an upstander

  • Associated with greater happiness and overall well being

  • Critical part of social and emotional learning (foundational life skill!)

Photo Credit: Unsplash @timmarshall

Tips on how to strengthen your child’s capacity for empathy

1. Role model it yourself! A dear friend of mine who is a teacher often says “kids best learning is caught not taught”, meaning our kids will “catch” our feelings and ideas and thoughts towards others.

Eg. If you see someone in a shop being grumpy and displaying rude behaviour you could say “hmmm I wonder what's happening for them today? Maybe they are dealing with something tough that we don’t even know about…”

2. Support your child in developing their own healthy self regulation of their “feelings”, as it is tricky to turn your attention to others if you are struggling to manage yourself.

Eg. Stick up a “feelings poster” so everyone in the family is better able to articulate their feelings (when we name feelings we can better tame them!”)

3. Expose your child to people of all different walks of life - religion, culture, age, disabilities

Eg. Travel to rural areas or other countries, visit religious shrines, engage in any inclusive activity (my experience of Little Athletics has been an awesome opportunity to connect with adults and kids of all walks of life!)

4. We understand shame (feeling bad about who we are) can get in the way of kids showing empathy to others so be mindful of parenting from “a curious not furious” place.

Eg. allow our child to have a safe space where ALL feelings are respected by saying “I can see you are very angry” rather than “stop being so dramatic”

5. Read books to open up conversations about the experiences of others

Eg. there are many options (just google for ideas) of beautiful books focussed on the theme of “empathy” but any books really present an opportunity to open up conversations about how the various characters might be feeling, what they might be thinking and what another character could do to help them.

6. Look for opportunities for “acts of kindness”

Eg. “our neighbour is on crutches, hmm i wonder how she might be feeling? I wonder what we could do to help given her situation?”

7. Encourage your child to practise mindful/empathetic listening as being able to put aside your own opinion and just focus on the other person’s experience is required to develop empathy.

Eg. one child might be interrupting their sibling and you might say “Evie can you pause your talking so we can hear all of Oliver’s ideas, they are important, he seems upset, we might discover a way to help him”.

Carley McGauran is an AHPRA registered psychologist, mother and presenter with Inform & Empower.

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