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How to Teach Empathy

Learn why empathy is important for your child to learn, and find out how to teach it to him.
By: Paul Coleman, Psy.D.

How to Teach Empathy

The following excerpt is taken from How to Say It to Your Kids, by Dr. Paul Coleman.

Davey and Steve stood in the cafeteria line on their first day at a new school. Steve was a year ahead of Davey. Each had a tray filled with food, and each stood on the side, looking around for a place to sit. Since empty seats were few in number,they had to choose which group of kids they would sit next to. Steve plunked down next to a group of boys he recognized from his class. Everyone said hello, but the boys tended to ignore him. Steve spoke up once or twice and tried to get in the conversation, but it didn't help. By meal's end he was feeling alone and rejected. In contrast, Davey selected a group of boys he seemed to have no problem connecting with. By the end of lunch he was feeling great.

What did Davey do that Steve did not?

Of course, there could be many reasons why Steve didn't fit in. Maybe the boys he sat next to were not interested in making a new friend. Still, some children are more adept at reading others. They sense when to speak up and when not to. They may have better skill at empathizing, which might also help them make friends easier.

Emotional intelligence is a new term that is not clearly defined. Daniel Goleman, the originator of the concept, describes it as "the capacity for recognizing our own feelings and those of others, for motivating ourselves, and for managing emotions well in ourselves and in our relationships." In sum, just as children need to learn about their bodies and their world, they need to learn about their emotional life. It can help them immeasurably as they navigate through relationships and life's ups and downs.

Things to Consider
Emotional intelligence does not refer to being nice. It does not mean wearing your feelings on your sleeve.It means understanding your own emotions enough that you can use them in decision making, manage them better during stress, and be able to understand and relate to others better.

Children with a capacity for empathy have better relationships and even perform better in school.

While a great number of emotions exist, the most basic emotions are mad, sad, glad, afraid, surprised, and disgusted. Parents will often pay attention to some emotions of their children and ignore others. Consequently, children may learn to suppress some emotions and overuse others.

How to Say It
Use moments when your child expresses emotion to teach about that emotion:

"You're feeling frustrated right now because we are late for the game."
"It surprised you to learn that Grandma was coming for a visit."
"You were joyous when your team won the playoffs."
"Last time you got so angry, you took longer to finish your assignment. This time you decided it wasn't worth it to get angry, and you finished your assignment more quickly. I bet that makes you feel good about yourself."

Use moments with other children or animals to teach about their emotions. That way your child can practice empathizing:

"The puppy cries whenever we leave it. What do you think she is feeling?"
"The dog is wagging its tail when it sees its owner. What do you think the dog is feeling?"
"That child over there just struck out with the bases loaded. Now he has his head down. What do you think he feels?"
"You just said it seems as if your stomach has butterflies. What feeling is that?"
"After studying hard, you complained of a stomachache. Sometimes stomachaches are a sign that someone is nervous. Are you?"
"What could someone say that would make you feel angry? Sad? Happy? Disgusted? Worried? What sensations would you feel in your body if you felt any of those emotions?"

Encourage and praise accurate identification of emotions and praise empathy:

"You let her play with your doll because you saw that she was sad. That was very kind of you."

Smart Talk
Siblings teach one another how to read emotions in others. Research at the Institute of Psychiatry in London showed that siblings who fought less often were also more adept at reading other people's emotions. Evidently, children who fought less were improving their skills at empathy and using those skills in other contexts. Some siblings have very different temperaments. These kids tended to fight more often unless the older child's temperament was easygoing.

One positive consequence of the high divorce rate, and the fact that family size is smaller and relatives often live far away, is that siblings must learn to pull together and rely on each other for support.

How Not to Say It
"Never give in to your emotions." Be careful. You are right that a child who feels angry should not hit someone, and so forth, but there are times when emotions are important cues that should not be dismissed. What if your child's friends wanted to steal another child's bike, and he felt guilty and did not want the owner of the bike to feel bad? You would want him to pay attention to those feelings.

"Feelings are a weakness. You have to be tough to make it in life." Without empathy your child will have a hard time establishing close friendships.

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