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One of our goals as parents is to instill values in our children that help them make the world a better place. This might include talking to them about bullying or being nice to others, and that starts with cultivating empathy at a young age. Empathy is critical for a child's healthy social development. Kids struggle with other kids who can't understand how they're feeling, and social development can be difficult if a child can't stop and think about how something makes someone feel.
Children's Hospital Colorado psychologist Emily Laux, PsyD, explains that children have the capacity for empathy as early as ages 3 or 4. However, it is a developmental skill learned through social interactions in early childhood and early elementary school, and continues all the way through middle school, high school and early adulthood.
"Empathy is developmental, and it's partially related to the development of the frontal lobe, which controls things like logical thinking and planning, reading social cues and impulse control," says Dr. Laux. "This means empathy fully develops in kids around the same time the frontal lobe develops, which is typically around late adolescent years or early adulthood."
During this critical stage of development, Dr. Laux gives tips for parents on cultivating empathy in children:
The most important way parents can instill empathy in children is by modeling it themselves. "If you're committed to raising an empathetic child, you should be an empathetic parent and embody those same skills," says Dr. Laux.
Use appropriate examples from your own life to exemplify what empathy looks like. "If you come home at night and had a conflict with your boss that day, talk about it in a way that shows empathy," says Dr. Laux. Talk through the emotions you felt and the emotions you identified in others. Let your child ask questions and ask questions back to them like "How do you think he was feeling?" or "Why do you think he acted that way?"
As soon as kids are 3 or 4, start asking your child what their body feels like as a way to label emotions. "If they're feeling or seem scared, help them identify how this feels in their belly or elsewhere in their body," says Dr. Laux. Making physical connections to feelings helps children label emotions. Then, when they start their early elementary years, they can better understand what those emotions look like in other people.
Movies or books are a good way to show examples of different emotions. "It can be hard for a young kid to distance themselves from their own emotional reactions and think about what another person feels," says Dr. Laux. "Sometimes it helps build those skills if you take the personalization out of it. If you're watching a movie or reading a book and there's a character feeling a strong emotion, stop and have a conversation about their feelings."
Exposing kids to situations that are different than their own is one way to build empathy and broaden worldviews. You can take young children to volunteer at places like an animal shelter, while older children may be ready to volunteer at a hospital, homeless shelter or soup kitchen.
"What kind of volunteer-work your child is ready for depends on both the developmental level of the child and how comfortable parents are with talking about difficult topics," says Dr. Laux. "It's very important for parents to do a self-assessment of what they feel comfortable talking about before taking their child to volunteer."
Being around pets and animals is a good way to help young children identify emotions and connect with others. "Pets can be very emotional, and there's a slight depersonalization with animals since it's not a peer or sibling," says Dr. Laux. "So if a dog is jumping up on you when you get home, help your child put into words that's how we know they're happy."
As your child gets older, parents can help them understand different perspectives in challenging social situations. Once they calm down, keep it curious, not accusatory. Dr. Laux says, "Don't ask, ‘What did you do?' but instead ask, ‘That sounds like a really intense situation. Any idea what's going on with that other person? It sounds like she had a strong reaction.'" Keep the conversation collaborative, not confrontational, to work through the problem.
Texting and social media can cloud the ability to recognize how the person on the other end feels. "Remind your child that with only words, you can't see facial expressions or hear the tone of their voice," explains Dr. Laux. "Caution them to slow down in their reactivity to written communications and recognize they're not getting the full picture of that communication." And vice versa, ensure your child knows that when they send written communications to others, they should be cognizant that the person on the other end can't see their non-verbal cues.
Holidays can be a great time to work in creative ways to develop empathy in kids. "One thing parents can do is involve their child in present shopping for a sibling or friend," says Dr. Laux. "Introduce them to that joy of giving when they see someone open a gift they were part of picking out."
Parents can also encourage their child to "get ready for Santa" by going through their current belongings and filling a box of toys they're no longer interested in. Dr. Laux says, "Take them with you to donate the box to kids in need and have a conversation about why there are kids who don't have the same things we have."