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Raising Empathetic Children

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT Meet The Team >

“Learning to stand in somebody else’s shoes, to see through their eyes, that’s how peace begins.  And it’s up to you to make that happen. Empathy is a quality of character that can change the world.”

– Barack Obama

Crisis of Conscience

A person watching the mainstream news media over the past couple of years could not be blamed if they thought the world was coming to a breaking point. Here in the USA, it seems that every hour there’s a new story related to presidential politics. The legislative, judicial, and executive branches of our government joust over matters that seem to threaten the stability of our constitutional republic.  Mass shootings share headlines alongside issues of race, policing, and sexual harassment. The news media grows increasingly polarized. Bots troll our social media feeds. It’s getting hard to know which sources we can trust and which we can’t.

In international news, political dynamics in the U.K., Europe, and Central Europe dominate the reporting. Issues involving Russia will not go away. The back and forth between the U.S. and North Korea is confusing and disturbing. Trade talks between various nations seem to take two steps forward and one step back as a matter of course. While all this goes on, people all over the world are simply trying to live their lives and make it back to their families at the end of the day. Parents come home to see joy, love, and happiness in the eyes of their children. Children continue as if nothing is wrong. They live as if life is all about fun and toys and playing the next game.

How Can Parents Change the World? Through Children

Parents intuitively understand that the hope of the world lies in its children, and they are right. While it’s true that the issues we face here in the U.S. and around the world are very complex, it’s also true that at the core of our conflicts lies one simple problem: communication. If people could communicate more effectively, then they would have a much better chance of avoiding conflict. This begs the question –what human trait is most important for developing effective communication?

The experts all agree: it’s empathy.

Parenting Styles that Encourage Empathy

A comprehensive study of the development of empathy in children was published in 1993 by author Kathleen Cotton in her paper Developing Empathy in Children and Youth. After conducting a survey of over fifty articles, books, and publications, Cotton identified a core set of parenting practices that promote empathy. Though Cotton’s study is over twenty years old, it’s the most thorough examination of empathy in children to date. It’s been cited by more than fifty articles since its publication. Here’s a simplified list of what she found:

  • Attentive parents have a greater chance of instilling empathy in their children.
  • An atmosphere of cooperation in the home increases chances children will work well with others in school and out in the world.
  • An approach that focuses on outcomes based on actions, as opposed to punishment, tends to teach children to follow rules because they are beneficial, rather than to avoid the negative consequences of breaking them. These children, in turn, tend to understand what it means to do things for “the general good”.
  • Parents who reason with and explain to children how their actions affect others give them the tools to see why caring for others is important.
  • A parent who models kindness and understanding toward others gives children positive examples of how to treat their peers—if children don’t see it, it’s difficult for them to do it.
  • Parents who talk openly about emotions with children give them the tools to process their emotions in productive ways.

The various traits that lead to empathy have a couple things in common. They all focus on communication and an ability to recognize, identify, and process personal emotions. Children who learn to recognize emotions in themselves are more likely to have the ability to recognize them in others. And children who are able to recognize similarities between themselves and others, especially emotional similarities, are more likely to develop empathetic character traits.

Pathway to Empathy

Cotton found that one of the most effective ways to teach empathy in children is through role playing. If kids don’t have siblings, role playing is especially important. Kids with siblings have a head start on kids that don’t. They’re constantly put in positions where they have to share. They have to make compromises. They learn to see things from another person’s point of view.

Parents of siblings are forever hearing themselves say “Now how do you think that made your brother (or sister) feel, when you took the toy he (or she) was playing with without asking first?” This is exactly what happens in a role play activity. The parent teaches the child to put themselves in another person’s shoes. They ask them to imagine the world from a different perspective. That’s how kids first get an idea of what another person is feeling: with their imagination.

Though it helps to learn this lesson early on in life, it’s never too late to teach a child to care about the feelings of others. When a child is able to understand what another person is going through on a basic emotional level, that’s the first step in developing empathy. They learn “…a quality of character that can change the world.”

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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