Can we teach empathy?

“Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.” – Aristotle

What is empathy?

Empathy involves being able to identify emotions, understand and explain emotions, and respond appropriately to those emotions. At its heart lies an awareness and sensitivity to our own and others’ feelings.

Some children find it harder to understand their own emotions and act in ways that are empathic.

Why might children struggle with empathy?

There are a number of reasons why children may struggle to manage their own emotions and show empathy. One reason for this can be traumatic and disruptive early life experiences. Challenges in early life, such as being neglected, physically abused or living with constantly changing caregivers can make it harder for children to develop high levels of empathy.

So, if some children struggle to act with empathy, can we help them learn?

Can we teach empathy?

Although some children may struggle more than others, there is lots of research that says ‘yes – most children can learn empathy’. It takes time and perseverance, however, just the same as getting physically fit. Going to the gym once or even twice may not make long-lasting changes. We need to think about social and emotional fitness in the same way. Qualities like self-awareness, empathy, and self-regulation need to be learned and practiced time after time in order to see gains.

To set children up for success, we must equip them with the right tools ahead of time. Rather than wait for the crisis to occur. There are a number of ways we can help develop skills essential to emotional understanding and empathy.

Six ways to promote empathy and compassion in children (Dr. Schonert-Reichl)

    1. Face-to-face play with babies and toddlers

Eye contact and lots of face-to-face play are essential for teaching children about emotions. Teach them what it means to laugh and what it looks like to be sad.

    1. What not to do: rewards!

When given rewards e.g. sweets, children actually help less than when no rewards are given or when only verbal praise is given. Rewards may undermine the positive feelings we naturally experience when we help others.

    1. Don’t underestimate a child’s capacity for empathy and sympathy

Look for opportunities to practice forgiveness and to make things right. If a child hurts another child, instead of telling them off, ask them to see how the other child must be feeling and think of ways they could make the hurt child feel better.

    1. Encouraging school-age children to discuss their feelings

Encourage children to talk about their emotions and point out that they have the power to make others happy by being kind and generous to them.

    1. Maximize support and minimize punishment.

“Every child requires someone in his or her life who is absolutely crazy about them” – Urie Bronfrenbrenner.

Show you care by acknowledging your own mistakes with your children, demonstrating forgiveness, and remembering that children will learn more from your actions than from your words.

    1. Help develop a caring and kind identity

Instead of a saying, “That was a kind thing to do,” say, “You are such a kind person”.