How did you develop empathy? Was it something you were born with or were you taught and it developed over time?
Oscar just woke up — he’s a grouch, and the morning is not his favorite time of day.
He starts the process of attempting to slither out of bed. The sleep in his eyes begins to crack apart as his feet begrudgingly hit the ground.
He stands up… Stretches… Yawns… Rubs his eyes…
He slowly begins shuffling toward the bathroom.
He’s just smashed his toe against the evil bedframe’s steel leg!
The pain! Oh, the pain! And the cursing! Oh, the cursing!
His teeth clench, toe throbs, and grouchometer skyrockets 400#$@!%.
Good morning to you, Oscar.
Can you feel that wincing experience just by reading about it?
If so, congratulations, you are showing traits of empathy — you have the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. In short, you can put yourself in someone’s shoes and understand what they are feeling.
Though, not everyone is like that. In fact, people who struggle with empathy often find themselves indifferent or uncaring about the way other people feel, for example, they aren’t emotionally affected by the sight of someone who’s crying.
However, a person can still have sympathy for another while not experiencing empathy. Confused? Let’s dig a bit deeper and also see how it applies to children and how you can help your child develop empathy.
What is the difference between empathy and sympathy?
We often hear people use empathy and sympathy interchangeably. Even though the definitions are slightly different, they really have distinct meanings.
Empathy is a behavior in which we make a learned, emotionally intuitive guess about another person’s feelings in any given situation.
Sympathy is a learned behavior in which we connect with another person with the intent of offering condolences or regret.
So, there are two differences.
First, parents can teach the behavior of sympathy by instructing their children to say “I’m sorry” at times when another person has been hurt or offended, usually by their child’s actions. Whereas empathy is a more complicated emotion. It must be modeled by parents so that children can have multiple opportunities to observe and experience different situations to learn what different emotions look and feel like at varying moments.
The second difference regards intention. Empathy expresses understanding and relating for the purpose of caring for you. Your child can empathize because they’ve experienced it, too, thus can understand and relate to the other person. Sympathy expresses sorrow or pity for your situation. Although it does say I care, it does not mean I understand; it means I know when to say, “I’m sorry.”
What can parents do to develop empathy in their children?
1. Use emotional vocabulary with your child.
Children learn the meanings of words through repetitiveness and hearing their parents talk with them. So, when your child is crying, reflect “You look so sad” or “You’re crying. Are you sad?” And, when they have the giggles, smile back and say “I see you are so happy that you have the giggles.” Simply teaching the behavior, crying or giggling, with the matching feeling word, sad or happy, is the simplest way to teach your child to intuitively know and relate to others emotionally.
Parents’ modeling of empathy is the second level of teaching meanings. Parents can teach children how to care by being caring and reflecting that understanding to another person when your child is present as well as for your child when they are struggling. Let them see you reach out to one of their siblings who has bumped their knee. A younger sibling seeing their parents be attentive to an older sibling shows what emotions are happening, how to be empathic. what to expect when they bump their knee, and to then understand when a friend is hurt.
2. Expose children to the less fortunate.
Teaching empathy on a societal level can begin as your children enter their early pre-teen years and have had experiences of you modeling empathy.
When the academic year is on a break, consider connecting yourself and your children in a monthly community supporting activity, like helping out neighbors in need with a bit of gardening or window cleaning, and bringing a collection of unused family toys and games to a local thrift store, shelter, or holiday toy drive.
3. Allow children to feel unhappiness.
It’s healthy for ALL of us to feel sad, blue, and frustrated, as well as to feel grief/loss when we lose a game or promotion, or a friend moves away or dies. It is also normal to feel disappointed when we are denied what we want. A parent’s response to their younger child’s sadness is the most direct way to model empathy. And, if your child has a temper tantrum after being denied something they want, respond calmly by reflecting the disappointment. In the long term, this will help your child learn how to appropriately respond as an adult.
Children who feel sad feelings also build their tolerance for other negative emotions. This encourages their ability to be compassionate for others. It strengthens their own ability to be resilient and has effective coping skills for life.
4. Shield children from aggressive content.
Empathy also comes from knowing the activities your children are involved in and the people they are interacting with. Permitting them to play video games that include aggression, violence, and mistreatment of others will counteract all the work you’re doing to model empathy. Electronic devices have been updated to include parental controls on what children can access online. You will know how to address their disappointment when they express anger because their device will not access a game that one of their peers has shared with them. And, you then have an opportunity to engage with your child about their interactions with that peer in the future.
What are ways parents interact that model and build empathy in their children?
1. Model the behavior of empathy.
Walk the walk AND talk the talk! Share your feelings appropriately. Include congruent & appropriate thoughts. For example, “That guy just pulled out in front of me. I feel so frustrated/shocked/etc. He must be in a big hurry.” Yelling and hand motions are not necessary. Emphasis and modeling can be learned without dramatic effect.
2. Make reparations and amends.
Correct any of your undesired/harmful behaviors that you become aware of AND insist on apologizing, especially if your own children were present during the harmful event. In addition to modeling empathy, you will also be letting them know adulthood does not mean they have to be perfect.
3. Affirm and acknowledge emotions as acceptable.
Highlight the difference between your emotion and your behavior. For example, “I feel so mad that I was not told the truth” (while slightly increasing your voice yet not making angry gestures or directly staring) and say a person has a right to their feelings while not having to harm another in retaliation. It is important that our emotions and behaviors match when teaching empathy to our children, AND it is more important that we do not over-exaggerate with grand gestures. Research on the development of children clearly suggests that when they become teenagers and young adults, they repeat what they saw during childhood.
How do I know if my child is having difficulty expressing empathy?
Professional family therapy is encouraged when parents observe any of these four key behaviors in their children: self-centeredness, aggressiveness, or cruelty, as well as a lack of remorse. Family therapists are more able to have a reparative impact toward helping develop empathy in children the earlier it is identified and treated. So, if you’ve done your very best and continue to see tantrums, defiance, or a lack of care in your child’s actions, please seek professional assistance as soon as possible.