Childhood is often associated with innocence and wonder, but it can also be pretty rough. It seems that some degree of teasing or bullying has become a part of every child’s experience growing up. As hard as we may try, there is no way we can shield our children from these kinds of interactions, so we do our best to guide and support them through the hurt feelings that arise from the incivility of others.
It is also very likely your child will also witness a friend experience sorrow or shame. When they do, how do you hope they will respond? Most of us want to believe our kids will show kindness or even the fortitude to speak out when another child is teased or bullied. While signs of empathy appear in children as young as ten months, we cannot assume the degree to which they truly empathize with others will continue to grow naturally as they age. It is up to parents and caregivers to give children the tools they need to actively show care and concern for others. (Yes, empathy can be taught!)
There are three separate aspects of empathy – first, recognizing the emotion someone is experiencing, then feeling the emotion, and finally, responding to it.
There is difference between anger and frustration. But to the immature eye, they can look identical. Children may not automatically understand the difference between disappointment and sadness, or excitement and anxiety. When asked, some kids would sort all emotions into two categories: happy or sad. Understanding the subtle nuances within a range of emotions takes practice.
You can give your child the vocabulary to name different emotions. Picture books are a great resource. During story time ask questions about the characters and how they respond to the events of the story. “How does the princess feel when…?” Or, “How does the farmer react when…?” In fact, a study performed in 2006 at the University of Toronto linked fiction reading to higher empathy in participants. Researchers concluded that the more fiction you are exposed to, the better you are able to understand human behavior and empathize with the experiences of others. A string of studies since then have only strengthened this theory.
Another way to help broaden your child’s understanding of emotions is to offer them the names of emotions as they are feeling them. You may try something like, “Ah, I see you are frustrated because you can’t find your bear,” or “You’re uncomfortable because I rearranged your toys this afternoon.” When we give children the vocabulary for the many emotions they encounter, they are more likely to recognize and identify the spectrum of feelings they see in others, as well as within themselves.
While this all sounds geared toward younger children, even teens struggle with naming their emotions and identifying the source of their feelings. Don’t be shy about helping your teenagers find the words to frame their experiences.
Kids learn from their primary caregivers first. Don’t be afraid to talk to your kids about the emotions you feel. Our children are watching us all the time. They have plenty of opportunities to witness us experience strong emotions. You receive a phone call that a relative is gravely ill. Or learn that a dear friend is moving out of state. Many parents feel they are protecting their children by pretending that everything is perfectly fine. We can help our children build empathy by sharing a censored and age-appropriate version of family news. By explaining our sadness, apprehension, or frustration, we give them the tools they need to understand those emotions and in turn empathize with their peers. The opportunity with teenagers is to bring them into your emotional confidence at a higher level. This can shift their view of you, their parent, from simply their caregiver, personal chef, chauffeur, and housekeeper. Imagine a world where teens behaved with empathy toward their parents.
We can also connect feelings with actions so kids can begin to internalize a sense of cause and effect. Then relate someone’s pain or frustration to a similar experience in their own lives. For example, “Your sister felt disappointed when her friend couldn’t come over for a play date. You know what that’s like; you felt disappointed too when Sam got sick and couldn’t join us at the park last week.”
Talk them through the process of putting themselves in someone else’s shoes. When a friend or sibling is upset, ask your child, “How do you think they are feeling? Why might they be upset?” It only takes a bit of probing for kids to link the pain of someone else to their own past experiences. Furthermore, by showing kids we value emotions, we are not only opening the path for them to empathize with others, we are also sending the message that their own emotions are important and it’s safe to share how they feel.
It’s up to us to set the expectation for empathy in our homes and communities. Most of us naturally make good choices the standard for our kids. But it’s not enough to simply behave well. Sharing and kindness come from truly feeling the emotions of another. Create opportunities to be empathetic while placing an emphasis on how kindness benefits everyone.
Point out when someone needs assistance. “Your brother dropped his crayons. Let’s help him pick them up.” Then follow up later with something like, “That was kind of you to help out. I’m sure he’ll be there the next time you need someone to lend a hand.” Brainstorm with older kids (beyond toddlerhood) by asking them to come up with kind and comforting words. Or ask them, “What could we do to help?” Eventually, this kind of thought process will become the go-to response when kids see someone in distress.
Kabbalists teach that empathy is key in our own spiritual growth. We, of course, seek to help others, yet the act of feeling the pain of someone else stretches our comfort zones and shifts our desires to include the needs of others. As my husband, Michael Berg, says, “If a person really pushes himself to awakening the feeling of the pain of others, then he starts feeling the pain the[u1] Light of the Creator. He's then able to transform, slowly but surely, all of his desires to receive for the self alone into the desire to share.”
There is an old Hebrew parable about a man who approached a rabbi for help. The man had experienced much hardship and loss. But, after hearing his story, the rabbi confessed there was nothing he could do to help. He couldn’t bring back the man’s dead loved ones, and he couldn’t restore his health, so the rabbi sent him on his way. Once the man had left the rabbi realized there was something he could do. He chased after him with haste. Catching up to him on the road, the rabbi exclaimed, “There is something I can do. I can cry with you.”
In all honesty, there is no experience any of us has ever had of which we were not the absolute center; the thoughts of others have to be communicated to us, while our own thoughts and feelings are immediate, urgent, and real. Children tend to think they are the most important person in existence. They are born with a natural self-centeredness, and they need this impulse for survival. After all, we naturally view the world through the lens of self. However, if we give our kids a framework for understanding emotion, they are more likely to identify with friends and strangers in need of compassion, more likely to see others are just like them – people who long for happiness, comfort, and love.