Promote Empathy Early: 5 Strategies That Work
Try these practical methods to promote empathic responding.
Posted Oct 09, 2019
Following the introduction is a guest post by Dr. Lisa Dissinger, Lower School Psychologist at The Agnes Irwin School, an All-Girls Pre-K-12 Independent School in Rosemont, Pennsylvania.
It's a fall day, and you and a friend are at the neighborhood playground for a 2-year-old playdate. Your children are running around when one trips, falls, and begins to cry. It's clear from the soft landing that there are no major injuries, yet you are surprised to see that your child begins to hold her leg in the same place as her toddling friend. This small moment is what psychologists call empathic distress.
By the age of 2, children respond to others' distress with concerned attention and comforting behavior. But even before this age, there is evidence that human beings are wired for empathy and prosocial behaviors. Empathic responding begins in infancy; empathic comforting increases in the preschool years and becomes more complex as emotion regulation and cognitive functioning develops. Empathic responding is defined as the human capacity to see the world from others' perspectives, to delight in their joy or feel their pain echo within oneself, and to respond to others' needs with sensitivity and care (Stern, Botdorf, Cassidy & Riggins, 2019).
Read on to discover ways to promote empathy early.
Many studies have shown that young children are very sensitive to the feelings of others. In fact, empathy appears to be an inborn trait for most preschoolers, but it can be lost over time without thoughtful nurturing.
Empathy starts with putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, a key step in understanding perspectives that differ from your own. Like a muscle, empathy gets stronger and stronger with practice and age. This is the muscle that allows you to stand up for something and to help others in need.
Empathy also fuels connections. When a person learns to understand and share the feelings of another, this creates better relationships, closer friendships, and ultimately stronger communities.
As a school psychologist and parent coach, I often see empathy as one of the most important school supplies to stock up on at the beginning of the year. What can parents do to help fill their child's hypothetical empathy backpack? First and foremost, parents need to lead by example.
Parents have to model empathy and compassion, inside and outside of the family. Express your feelings clearly, simply, and in a non-threatening way. You can say, “I’m angry at you right now,” instead of yelling and losing control. When you demonstrate emotional honesty, your child learns to nurture those feelings in themselves.
Do not use physical punishment or withdrawal of affection as discipline techniques. Discipline should help a child feel safe and calm, rather than agitated or rejected. When you make a mistake and lose your temper, which will happen, practice the technique of rupture and repair. Make time to repair the hurt feelings in the relationship, because if a child feels rejected, it will be harder for them to show empathy toward others.
Make caring for others a part of your family life, as well. Get involved in a community project as a family and volunteer with your children. As they grow, have your children donate their toys, books, and/or clothing. This action encourages children to begin to “see” that others have needs too.
In order to empathize with others, young children must first recognize their own feelings and believe these emotions are accepted and understood. To build this emotional vocabulary, parents need to use feeling words like “sad,” “scared,” “excited,” and “frustrated” on a daily basis, even when the child is very young. Parents can use bibliotherapy (fancy word for reading books to children on specific topics) to build a child’s emotional vocabulary and empathy. Books like Today I Feel Silly and Other Moods That Make My Day by Jamie Lee Curtis and How Do I Stand in Your Shoes? by Dr. Susan DeBell are helpful.
When your child expresses their feelings, just listen. Do not try to shut your child’s feelings down. Think of yourself as their emotional container. Reflect back what you think they are feeling. Let them know all feelings are OK. Give them appropriate ways to express these feelings, like “Use your words, not your hands”; “Take some time and come back when you are ready”; or “Show me how you feel in a drawing.”
Another way to build empathy is to use a positive parenting approach that promotes problem solving and empathy building. Dr. Ross Greene articulates this approach in his 2016 book Raising Human Beings: Creating A Collaborative Partnership With Your Child. In his book, Dr. Ross explains how to cultivate a better parent-child relationship while also nurturing empathy, honesty, resilience, and independence.
Dr. Ross sees parents as problem-solving partners. Help kids solve problems collaboratively, not unilaterally. The three steps in this problem-solving approach are the empathy step, “define adult concerns” step, and the invitation step.
The empathy step focuses on understanding your child’s perspective or point of view by listening to the problem (no teaching or preaching here!). This empathy step of gathering information begins with words like “I’ve noticed that…” and ends with “What’s up?” For example, “I’ve noticed you and your sister have not been getting along lately. What’s up?” After completing the empathy step, a parent can voice their own concerns and point of view. This is the “define adult concerns” step. Finally, the invitation step encourages the parent to work with their child toward a realistic and mutually satisfactory solution.
If a child is struggling to develop empathy, the parents may need to more directly instruct their child to follow a five-step process.
Watch and listen: What is the other person saying? What is their body language telling you?
Remember: When did you feel the same way?
Imagine: How does the other person feel? How would you feel in that situation
Ask: Ask what the person is feeling.
Show: Show you care with words and actions
Post these five steps on your refrigerator or in the child’s room as a visual reminder. Continue to teach the five-step process, sometimes for several years, until the child has internalized the steps.
Finally, encourage your child to become friends with others who are different. This is the simplest way to develop empathy. We do not always need to see the world in the same way as others, but we can promote prosocial behaviors that value the dignity and worth of all human beings.
Greene, R. (2017). Raising Human Beings: Creating a Collaborative Partnership with Your Child. New York: New York. Scribner.
Stern, J. A., Botdorf, M., Cassidy, J., & Riggins, T. (2019). Empathic responding and hippocampal volume in young children. Developmental Psychology, 55, 1908–1920. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/dev0000684