It just so happens that I was raising my young daughter when I began grad school for clinical psychology. As I was learning how to work with clients, I realized that the same tools that I was developing as a psychotherapist — learning to take another’s perspective, helping people to recognize and understand their own feelings — applied to parenting, too. And what all those tools boil down to: empathy, the ability to step into another’s shoes, to feel their feelings and see the world from their perspective.
The good news is that empathy is a skill children can learn and cultivate over time. Not only has empathy been shown to result in kids that are happier, kinder, and more resilient, but kids who have empathy can better understand perspectives other than their own across identity, cultural and racial differences — and that helps make this world a better place. Here are some of the ways I counsel parents on how to raise empathetic kids.
1) Listen, don’t fix
For kids to feel empathy, it must first be modeled to them. We psychotherapists spend years training in how to be present to our clients with empathy. In our roles as parents, though, we don’t get the same training. This can be tricky, especially if we weren’t modeled empathy in our own childhood. So, to start: Acknowledge children’s feelings when they share them. Let them know you hear them. Then help them name their feelings — without trying to fix or change them — such as “That is so disappointing that you weren’t invited to the party,” or “It’s so frustrating to lose sometimes.” This type of listening and reflecting shows empathy, rather than minimizing feelings (“Don’t be sad, better luck next time!” or “Don’t be so sensitive!”) And when we model empathy in this way, our sponge-like kids learn how to become more empathetic themselves.
2) Practice reading emotions
One way kids develop empathy is by learning to identify other people’s facial expressions, tone of voice, posture and gesture. With very young kids, practicing this might mean looking at book illustrations and asking “What emotion do you think this character is feeling in this picture?” Recently, my daughter and I sat down to do this quiz on reading emotions. (Here’s one for the preschool set.) We talked about how some people in our lives had trouble reading some of these emotions (that teacher!) which makes misunderstandings more likely.
3) Look for small acts of kindness
Encourage small acts of kindness by helping kids notice how they can help out in any given situation, whether with a friend, neighbor, family or community member in need. This lets kids practice empathy in action and feel empowered that they can impact change for good, no matter how big or small. Is there a meal they can make, a lawn they can clean up, a chore that can lighten someone’s load, or a kind note they can write? When my daughter’s friend was going through a hard time recently, she’d send her friend funny memes and reach out regularly to let her know that she was there if she wanted to talk.
4) Volunteer, and use that voice
Getting kids engaged in activism at an early age cultivates empathy and shows them they can be agents of change. Is there a cause they’re passionate about they can get involved in? Right now we’re seeing plenty of families make signs together and attend protests for racial equity. Recently, my daughter planned a bake sale and went on a walk to raise money for a charity we’re involved with. This helps to model what empathy looks like in action.
5) Put on your own oxygen mask first
You know how on an airplane they tell you that in an emergency, you need to put on your own mask first, then the kids’? Same idea applies here. Kids can sense when parents are stressed and less emotionally available. When we adults can take some time away, even briefly, for our own self care, we model what it looks like to self-regulate our emotions to decrease stress. This can be as simple as connecting with a friend, listening to an audio book at the end of a long day, or taking a bath. I take some time each day for some type of meditation, whether sitting or lying down, or going for a walk.
6) Allow (and celebrate!) do-overs
If your child has taken an action that was hurtful to another, make sure they know they have the opportunity to try again, without shaming them for their behavior. Parents can also benefit from this activity! When we lose our cool, we can give ourselves a do over to show kids what it looks like to make mistakes and then repair the relationship or situation — a key to building empathy.
7) Widen your family’s lens
Expose your child to cultures and backgrounds different from their own. Read books, watch age-appropriate documentaries/movies/shows, and experience art and music from various cultures. Since my daughter’s old enough now, our family has been watching the news together as a way to get these conversations started.
8) Establish screen-free family meetings
All of us — adults and kids alike — are distracted by screens so much of the time. Setting up regular times to connect as a family without devices present can help to build empathy in our kids. The meetings should be a time when each member of the family can share their point of view, see the way their actions impact others, and learn how to resolve conflicts. Kids will be engaged in the meetings if they have opportunities to put their ideas into action. At one point during quarantine, we had a family meeting about what wasn’t working (my daughter was spending too much time on TikTok) and how to create a better family schedule to ease conflict and stress (no phone access until after 4pm).
Meditation teaches us how to attune to our own feelings and befriend ourselves, which builds compassion for self, and, as an extension, others. Kids at all ages can learn to meditate for short periods (call them guided visualizations, if you like), which has the same benefits — and can build their capacity to self regulate emotions.
10 ) Give a “Put-Up”
Kids are well aware of what a put down sounds like, whether from a sibling or classmate. Too often, the practice of giving “put-ups,” or giving praise to another, is underdeveloped. Learning to give put-ups teaches the core values of kindness and can also reduce the risk of bullying. Recently, my daughter’s school had an end-of-year virtual put-up board, on which she wrote three compliments for each of her classmates. This practice sets the stage for positive relationships and opens the doorway for empathy.