How many times have you wished someone would understand how you are feeling? No matter our age, we all need to know we aren’t alone in experiencing the emotions we do. The need begins in childhood, and it can only be met if we receive and give empathy. Empathy is a crucial part of development if we are to live harmoniously with one another.
According to Nicole M. McDonald and Daniel S. Messinger, Department of Psychology at University of Miami, “Empathy can be defined as the ability to feel or imagine another person’s emotional experience. The ability to empathize is an important part of social and emotional development, affecting an individual’s behavior toward others and the quality of social relationships.”
Although there is scientific evidence that a certain amount of empathy is innate, largely, it is learned. And while children practice empathy in school, there are things you can do to support your child at home. Here are some ideas.
- Start using pictures to help your children identify emotions. Happy, sad, scared and angry faces are easy to draw and put up on a wall. Point to the faces and say the corresponding words. Have older children repeat the words if they can.
- Tell your children when they do good things how happy that makes you, even if they don’t understand all the words. For example, “You picked up your toy! That makes me happy!” Tell your children when they hit or bite, “No! No! This hurts him!” or “This makes me feel bad.”
- Use vivid facial expressions and appropriate vocal tones when you talk to your children about emotions so they start to associate emotions like joy, pride, anger, hurt and pain with a physical state.
- Explain to your children if another child cries, “He feels sad,” or “She feels angry because her toy broke.”
- Tell your children when they make another child happy. You can say, “I am so PROUD of you! You made her feel VERY happy!”
- Remember to hug your children when they are sad. Laugh with your children when they laugh at something funny. Clap when you are proud of them. Show clear, appropriate emotional reactions towards your children and their behaviors.
- Tell your children you understand. For example, you might say, “Ouch! I know! Boo-boos hurt!” With older children, you might say, “When I was little, I skinned my knee, too. I know how much it hurts.”
- Post a simply worded list of house rules. Include empathy-related reasons for the rules. For example, you might write, “Biting people hurts. We only bite food.”
- Manners make others feel respected, so teach good manners. Make it a house rule to say “please” and “thank you.” Model good manners by saying things like, “excuse me.”
- Since empathy is directly linked to behavior, be consistent with what kind of behavior is acceptable and what is not. Be sure to reward good behavior. For bad behavior, use time-outs, or take away toys if necessary.
- Read books about emotions and empathy to your children. The Best Behavior Series by Free Spirit Publishing includes board books and soft covers that incorporate empathy into stories. Some titles are Hands are Not for Hitting, Feet are Not for Kicking and Words are Not for Hurting. Ask your child’s teacher for more recommendations.
- Use puppets and dolls to act out situations in which empathy is demonstrated. For example, you might show one puppet losing a favorite toy and another doing the same. The two puppets can come together and talk about it, using phrases like, “I know how you feel.”
At Sparkles! empathy is imbedded in our curriculum, which aims to help children develop communication, social and emotional skills. If you would like to know more about our curriculum, contact us today.