In my article “When does a Child Start to Show Empathy?” we looked at what empathy is and what capacity our children have at various ages to observe and feel what others feel and react appropriately to it.
Just briefly, empathy is “the ability to put yourself into another person’s shoes and to experience something as that other person would.” (3)
We learned that a child doesn’t even have the capacity to truly understand what is going on in somebody else’s heart and mind until he is six or seven years old. That's a relief to this momma since it means that my 6-year-old still has time to learn empathy and is apparently in line with this developmental milestone.
We also learned that empathy requires a child to be able to observe or read nonverbal cues and regulate her own emotions.
So what can we, as parents, do to teach our children to observe and feel the emotions of other people?
Tips for Teaching Empathy: Honesty and Security
1) Be honest
By the age of five or six, your child will be more aware of his own emotion and will be able to recognize those emotions in others. These new discoveries mean that your child will actually want to talk about what he is feeling or what she has observed in other people. (2)
The best way to encourage empathy is for parents to be honest and straightforward about their own feelings. If your child sees you crying or angry or asks you “Why are you yelling at me”, that’s your cue to explain what you are feeling and what’s making you feel that way.
Her even asking “What’s wrong?” is showing empathy and by responding honestly you will be telling your child that “empathy has meaning and value.” (3)
2) Meet your child’s emotional needs
Children who don’t have secure attachment relationships with their family, caregivers or teachers will feel insecure about their home or school situations. This insecurity or fear can actually interfere with a child’s development of empathy.