Parenting with a PhD: Teaching Empathy in 5 Easy Steps

(O.K. – it’s not really that easy but you wouldn’t be reading this if I told you it’s a long process…).
Increasingly, social science research finds that empathy is one of the most critical skills we need to function successfully in the world. Empathy is defined as the ability to share or recognize the feelings of another person. It differs from sympathy in that we’re not just feeling sorry for the other person but trying to truly understand his experience. Empathy is necessary in our work relationships, our marriages, and in our interactions with our kids. It’s important in caring for elderly and ailing family members, dealing with our neighbors, and even buying groceries from the slowest checkout person ever. Empathy motivates us to help when others are in trouble and allows us to keep our emotions in check when we’re frustrated with someone.
It’s absolutely crucial that we teach our children to be empathic – even our boys especially our boys. People who lack empathy usually end up with really poor outcomes – broken relationships, legal problems, drug and alcohol abuse, mental illness, etc. etc. etc. If you teach your child only one thing during the years she spends under your roof, empathy would be an excellent choice. Here are a few ideas for helping your child develop empathy:

1. Volunteer with your kids. There are tons of opportunities out there to help someone in need – be they lacking resources, sick, struggling in school, or in emotional pain. There are volunteer opportunities to fit all skill sets – even those of a five-year-old (which, from what I can tell, includes gluing random crap together and singling “Let It Go” on repeat). The kind of volunteering that best builds empathy is when you’re brought face-to-face with the beneficiaries. But, even if you’re not working directly with someone in need, you can talk to your child about why you’re helping the people you’re helping and give them more information
about the problem you’re assisting with. For example, if your child helps to sell lemonade for the Birmingham-based Stand for Giving, she may not have the opportunity to see how the money raised will be used by the charity to which it’s donated. However, you and your child could look together at the website for the non-profit, the Bell Early Intervention Center, for example, and learn more about the kinds of challenges the children seen at the center are facing. Ask questions like, “What would it be like if you had trouble talking?” “How would you handle it if your sister needed to use a wheelchair?” The goal is not to get your child feeling
sorry for the served populations but to help him better understand what it would be like to be in their shoes.

2. Give feedback. When your child does something that hurts you – physically or emotionally – tell him how you feel. You may decide to punish the behavior but first, let your child understand the consequence you’re experiencing as a result of what he did. One I had to use with my son recently: “When you kicked me in the shin because you didn’t want to go to bed, it really hurt my leg. It also hurt my feelings that you kicked me.” My next step was to ask him to use words next time so that I’d understand him and no one would get hurt. This is a great strategy to try with sibling fights, too. Instead of each child telling on the other repeatedly and
for every minor infraction, prompt and encourage them to give each other feedback about what he/she did that caused a problem. “How did you feel when your sister tore your paper?” Then, “How did you feel when your brother hit you because you tore his paper?” Summarize that everyone got hurt in some way and that no one is very happy about the interaction. Problem-solve together how each child can show respect to the other and, hopefully, also receive respect.

3. Discuss empathy in others. Books, movies, and T.V. shows provide lots of opportunities to teach empathy. When you read or watch together, ask your child how she thinks various characters are feeling and why they might be feeling that way. Help her make connections between feelings and what has just happened to the character. In this way, you’re helping her to see that all people have emotional reactions to events around them – not just her. You’re also teaching her to pay attention to her own behavior and how others may be affected by it.

4. Express empathy, particularly when it’s really difficult. We don’t want our children mistreated by classmates and it’s tempting to call kids who aren’t nice “bullies.” However, when we do that, we completely disregard what might be going on for those kids that has led them to be angry and aggressive. When your child tells you about being teased or bullied, first validate how upsetting that must have been for him. Then, take it a step further and talk about why the other child is acting the way he is. Avoid assumptions that your child may have started the problem but do look at other factors. Is the child who is doing the teasing being left out? Is he struggling in school? Is someone else bullying him? Helping your child to think about this kid as something other than “bad” or “mean” will prepare him to deal with unkind people in the future and equip him to better understand complex social issues in adulthood. Rarely are interpersonal problems simply “good” versus “bad.”

5. Play Kids’ Court. When social issues arise that seem unfair, encourage your child to try and give an alternate perspective to her original assumptions. Set up two chairs – a “Prosecution” and a “Defense” chair. Have her sit in the “Prosecution” chair to tell how she thinks the other person has wronged her and done so on purpose. Ask for explanations as to why the person may have done that. Now, have her switch to the “Defense” chair and give a different explanation for what happened. Did the teacher make her move seats because she was angry with her (i.e., “Prosecution”) or because she wanted your daughter to sit next to a child who was struggling so she could help him (i.e., “Defense”)? Sometimes, your child’s original assumptions will be right on and the other person was, in fact, being kind of jerky, but this exercise will help your child to see reasonable alternatives and to better understand how others may have understood a situation differently.

These are just a few ideas – there are hundreds of more ways to teach empathy. As always, the best way for you to teach your child something is to model it yourself. So, you know – be nice.

About this column: Send your parenting- and kid-related questions my way and I’ll tell you what I can: Please be aware that email is not a secure method of transmitting personal information so it’s best to keep your questions general. If your question is featured, your name and email will not be published. Submitting a question does not constitute a professional relationship in any way and this column is not meant to substitute for face-to-face therapy. If you feel you’re doing the best you can and still need help, it may be time to bring in a professional. Start by talking with your child’s pediatrician to get a referral.

About Kristen:

Kristen Berthiaume, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist with Grayson and Associates. She obtained her doctorate in clinical psychology from the University of Kentucky. She completed a predoctoral internship in clinical psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a post- doctoral fellowship in the Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders (ADHD) Program at Duke University Medical Center. She specializes in providing assessment and treatment of children, adolescents, and families dealing with the following issues: ADHD, learning disorders, social skill deficits, organizational problems, behavioral difficulties, anxiety, and depression. She generally focuses on behavioral and cognitive- behavioral techniques, but maintains a flexible approach to therapy. Her other day job is as mom to her daughters, ages seven and one, and four-year-old son.

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