Discover the powerful and positive impact of empathy on kids’ well-being, and how teaching it will benefit them for life.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and to promote the development of healthy minds in children, we’re turning our focus to a powerful emotional skill that will benefit your kids and everyone around them for a lifetime: empathy.
Empathy is the ability to understand and share how someone else is thinking or feeling. It helps us identify and regulate our own emotions, and connect with, understand and be there for others. Kids aren’t naturally born with the ability to show empathy, though. It’s a complex skill that develops over time through demonstration, teaching and reinforcement.
How is empathy different from sympathy?
While sympathy allows you to understand someone else’s perspective from your own, empathy enables you to feel it along with them. For instance, if your friend drops their ice cream cone and you feel compelled to show compassion because you know how you’d feel, that’s sympathy. But if you actually feel happy, sad, mad or whatever else your friend could be going through along with them, it’s empathy. Empathy gives us a deeper understanding of others and teaches us more about ourselves.
Psychology Today, says kids demonstrate empathy when they:
- Understand that they are distinct from those around them and that other people may have different feelings and perspectives than their own.
- Can recognize feelings in themselves and others (and name those feelings).
- Can regulate their own emotional responses.
- Can put themselves in someone else’s shoes and imagine how someone might feel.
- Can imagine what kind of action or response might help a person feel better.
Kids learn empathy from watching others, especially you. Children who are empathetic aren’t just kinder, they tend to do better in school, in social situations and professionally later in life.
Why is empathy in kids important?
1. Better Relationships
When kids experience social harmony, it makes them feel more empowered to stand up to bullies and less likely to bully themselves. They’re better at accepting and offering feedback and compromising to reach agreements, seeing themselves in alternative points of view, and in turn become effective collaborators later in life.
2. Better Mental Health
Kids and adults with highly developed empathy towards others have higher levels of overall happiness. According to the National Council for Mental Wellbeing: “…through the expression of empathy, you may be more equipped to handle stressful or emotionally challenging situations. In the end, it also helps you be more effective in managing your own stress.”
3. Morale Fiber
Kindness gives kids the motivation and courage to stand up for others and in turn makes them strong leaders. Knowing how to lead requires compassion and the ability to understand the needs of those who rely on you.
4. Thoughtful Problem Solving
Empathy allows kids to find new solutions by looking past their own experiences and points of view. Caring about and valuing the perspectives of others opens doors to creative and unexpected possibilities through openness, acceptance and understanding.
5. Connection to the World’s Needs
According to UCLA neuropsychiatrist, Daniel Siegel, kids who are empathetic are more likely to respond to life’s daily challenges and stresses with reason, clarity and purpose, which makes them more likely to gravitate toward volunteerism and become passionate about contributing to causes outside of themselves.
Here’s how to help your child develop empathy.
1. Model it. Be mindful of how your kid is doing emotionally and check in often. If they make a mistake or feel bad, put yourself in their shoes and let them know their feelings are normal. Give them room to breathe and just be.
2. See from their perspective. See the world through their eyes. Their problems might seem trivial to you, but being a kid comes with its own set of challenges that us adults might not remember so well. Lost pieces of candy, broken toys or not wanting to go to bed might not seem like a big deal to you, but in their world it could be a much bigger deal to them, and the empathy you show in those moments helps shape who they’ll become.
3. Show understanding. Whether it’s as simple as a look, a knowing nod, a glance–find ways to show them you “get it” when they’re going through big emotions. Send the message in your shared language that you understand because you’ve also been there.
4. Read books that promote empathy. Reading is a great way to demonstrate the power of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. It’s a proven, effective way to nurture your child’s ability to have compassion for the feelings of others.