I clearly remember listening to my then 2-year-old daughter as she was comforting her doll. She sounded out the cries of her doll and followed it with, “I got you. You’re safe.”
My heart was melting as she gave her doll the same care I gave her when she would cry from a scraped knee or when feeling frightened. I realize now that this is a form of empathy, as she was empathizing with her “crying” baby and using what had comforted her when she had cried.
As parents we often get caught up with academics—feeling that children must learn how to read early on and solve math problems to succeed—but we forget about the life skills that are needed and not learned in a school book.
Empathy is one of them. Some might think that an empathic child would just be a sensitive child wearing their heart on their sleeve.
Although that may be true at times, empathy is also a skill that allows us to take perspective of others in efforts to understand one another and problem-solve in our relationships with the people we work with, live with, and love.
As parents, we have the opportunity to help our children begin building the skill from a very young age.
This is not necessarily easy, especially if we did not have a grown-up to empathize with us when we were little and instead told us to “buck up,” “stop crying” or expressed embarrassment around our expression of our feelings.
Whether or not you have received empathy in your childhood or now, you can still show your child the genuine feeling of empathy and help them build this life skill.
Here are four steps you can take to guide your child towards successful relationships:
1. Be a model
By modeling empathy and showing our children respect, we are able to tremendously impact our children’s actions towards others.
Modeling empathy towards our children and others helps our children pick up this skill more quickly, as they observe and then do what we do. They are watching as we interact with our partner, our in-laws, and even our cat.
Remember, though, that our children are experiencing every bit of empathy that we are or are not modeling as we interact with them too.
2. Name the feelings
When we can help our children name feelings of others, we are one step closer to helping them understand others. When we describe how the child at the store may feel “sad” because they didn’t get the toy they want or may be tired or how a character in a book was upset when their friend did not want to share a toy, we are starting to help them relate as they recall when they were sad or upset too.
Not only is it important to give them the words for the feeling, but then have a conversation (or a monologue if your child is really young) on what the child may need. For example, “They might feel better if they got a hug or a quiet place to get some rest.”
3. Be patient
We cannot push empathy on our children through forced apologies, so you might want to preserve your energy there. As Dr. Laura Markham described in , forcing children to apologize does not lay the groundwork to encourage them to repair their relationships at their own will. In fact, we may be just having them learn how to avoid getting into further “trouble” or making them feel bad about themselves without understanding the perspective of the other.
Both Dr. Daniel Siegel and Dr. Markham recommend calming the mind and connecting with the child before engaging in problem solving or discussion around the issues that occurred.
Surely you can recall how hard it is to address something when you are at the height of your emotions. As parents, we need to provide some guidance in not only problem solving the main issue, but also prompting our children on how to calm down at times so that they have the capacity to engage in problem solving.
4. Take space
This one is for you. In our efforts to take care of our children and everything else, we forget to give ourselves some empathy and understanding. Somehow many of us treat ourselves as superheroes, as we do not take breaks from work, do not work with our supports to develop a plan to address our own needs, and for some, practically neglecting themselves.
Please remember you too deserve that empathy and understanding, as you are working so hard to be there for your child. And know that by taking better care of yourself you are allowing your child to have more of you… more of the best of you.
Here’s to you, as you continue to find new ways to be there for your child. You are wonderful.