Empathy is the skill to understand the world from another person’s point of view and then to act based on that understanding. It may be hard to believe but empathy starts young. After experiencing a particularly trying day, tears ran down my cheeks. It did not take more than a minute for my 3-year old daughter to grab a towel and begin to wipe them away. This was her way of showing empathy for me, her mother. I was touched by her actions and hoped she would keep this sweet quality forever.
As parents we can assist our children in developing and fostering empathy. Below are six creative ways where you and your child can begin to take the risk together.
1. How are you alike?
It can be useful to make kids aware of the similarities that they share with others. The more opportunities they have to identify with others who may be experiencing distress or heartbreak, the better they will respond in situations where empathy is necessary.
2. Act it out
Using puppets or dolls is a helpful way for children to investigate their feelings and others. Replay scenarios that may happen in their day-to-day interactions with friends or siblings. For example, have one puppet receive a gift while the other gets nothing. Explore how the puppet with no present feels and encourage comfort and kindness.
3. Get silly
Make facial expressions (happy, angry, sad, frustrated, excited) with your child and have them identify the emotion based on the face you are pulling. Discuss and explore where they feel that emotion in their body. Then take time to have an open dialogue about times they may have felt this way in life. When I did this with one of my children, it surprised me how liberating it was for him to express his emotions freely. The more in touch children are with their own emotions, the better they can feel for others.
4. Shift perspectives
An exercise that encourages children to take another’s view is the fish bowl exercise. Ask them to imagine for a moment what it would be like to be a goldfish in a bowl looking out into a classroom of children. What do they think the fish is thinking inside of there? What is he feeling? Then have the child to complete the exercise from their point of view as they stare in at the fish.
5. Model empathy
Take every opportunity to model empathetic behavior and discuss situations that call for empathy. For example, if you notice someone who is having a difficult time or being mistreated, talk to your child about what that person may be feeling and experiencing.
6. Give them a hug
Kids will be able to notice others emotional well-being if they are well-supplied themselves. The feel good hormone, Oxytocin, is released when people experience touch and engage in pleasant social interactions. So take the time to get close with your children.
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