Every parent’s been there at least once. You’re sitting on a bench watching your kid play in the sandbox, and suddenly, they push another child face-first into the dirt and calmly walk away, cool as a cucumber. When you ask what happened and demand they apologize, they’re completely remorseless, leaving you wondering if you’ve created a monster as you desperately Google, “How can I teach my child empathy?”
In HelloJoey’s “Discipline Starts with Empathy,” we look how kids learn empathy – starting with an explanation of exactly what empathy is and the impact it has on both kids and adults. Then, we explore specific ways you can teach empathy to your child by showing it everyday, giving them the chance to catch the “empathy bug” for themselves.
What is empathy?
Empathy is a word that you hear often in reference to parenting (and in many of our HelloJoey kits). It’s sometimes confused with sympathy, but the meaning of empathy is a little different. At HelloJoey, we define empathy as “being sensitive to others’ thoughts and feelings.” It’s that act of putting yourself into somebody else’s shoes to imagine what they’re thinking or feeling.
The easiest way to explain the difference between sympathy and empathy is that sympathy is about your feelings and empathy is about the other person’s feelings. If your friend doesn’t get a promotion and you feel sympathy, you’re sorry that they’re upset. If you feel empathy, you imagine how they’re feeling and let that guide your behavior. You know your friend really needed that raise, so you can imagine they’re stressed about money – and instead of inviting them out for (expensive) drinks, you invite them to your house for a glass of wine.
This ability to understand what others may be thinking or feeling takes time. Toddlers assume everyone knows what they know and feels what they feel because their brains are still developing. In elementary school, kids start to realize they’re not the center of the universe and can imagine what life is like for others – which is called “Theory of Mind.” As it develops, kids begin to see that their actions have consequences, but they still need your help connecting the two – like how picking up a wrapper on a hiking trail is taking care of our environment.
Why is empathy important for kids to learn?
Empathy is important for kids to learn for many reasons. Since it’s all about putting yourself in another person’s shoes, empathy is a way to make someone else feel understood – and that desire is a basic need for both kids and adults. When you feel understood, the parts of your brain that handle reward and social connection are activated; when you don’t, your brain’s negative emotion regions light up.
Feeling understood – or emotionally-connected – also develops resilience. It makes you feel safer, and that allows you to better handle everything from losing a soccer game to dealing with a divorce. In fact, research has shown that positive emotional connections can have effects that range from helping a marriage to thrive to improving workplace performance.
When you teach empathy to your kid, you not only let them know they’re not alone, you know how they’re feeling, and you support them – but you also lay the groundwork for your child to do the same for others. Warm, accepting responses from parents help kids learn how to recognize emotions in themselves and others and learn to adjust their own emotions appropriately, which is called “self-regulation.” On top of that, research shows there’s a link between parental empathy and:
On the flip side, this same research shows that kids without empathetic role models may have lower self-esteem and can exhibit antisocial behavior. They also may feel more alienated, hostile, and aggressive and may be more likely to experience mental illness as adults.
How can I teach empathy to my child?
If you want to teach your child empathy, the best thing you can do is to show it; empathy is “caught” rather than taught, and your kid catches it by watching and interacting with you. That’s one reason why how you respond to their emotions matters so much – and why modeling the behavior you want to see in your child can be so effective.
Neuroscientist Dr. Alex Korb explains how emotions are infectious and why you can be affected by someone else’s mood. “We automatically start to mirror actions, speech patterns, and stress levels – particularly of the people to whom we feel close. Your stress levels, muscle tone, the clenching of your teeth, breathing rate, and tone of voice impact your child’s stress response via the ‘mirror neuron system.’ This system of neurons in the brain both acts out behaviors and is responsive to perceiving those behaviors. It helps us feel empathy for other people.”
Say your child has a bad day at school and throws their backpack on the table, breaking a vase. You get angry, and your child picks up on that and gets even angrier – having a tantrum or breaking down in tears. As an alternative, Dr. John Gottman (and other experts) suggests “emotion coaching,” which involves four basic steps:
Be aware of your child's emotions.
Recognize their emotions as an opportunity for intimacy and teaching.
Listen with empathy and validate their feelings.
Help you child put their emotions into words.
Instead of yelling, you see your child is unhappy and ask why. When they say, “I have too much homework!” you acknowledge how frustrating that is and help them figure out why it makes them upset. “You must have a lot of pent up energy after all day at school. Are you worried you won’t have time to play because you have to do homework?” Your child learns to recognize and express their feelings in an appropriate way – and maybe next time, your vase will be saved.
Showing empathy to your kids isn’t always easy (especially if that vase was an heirloom), but it can make a huge difference. When you show them that you understand their emotions and remind them you’ve got them – physically and emotionally, no matter what – that reassurance can help them stay on track, even when you aren't there.
Self-discipline, or impulse control, is the ability to notice your feelings and decide what to do with them after you’ve thought about the options and chosen the right one for the situation
By helping your kid learn to recognize their emotions, they’ll start to see how those emotions are linked to their behavior. From there, that self-discipline will develop, and your child can use it to guide their behavior as they imagine the impact of their actions on others.
Want to learn more about “Discipline Starts with Empathy” and find more ways to help your child develop empathy? Start your path to a solid parenting foundation in just 10 minutes a day. Check out the HelloJoey app.