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Empathy: How Children Learn Compassion

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What is empathy anyway?

There is no very clear definition of empathy; scientists do not quite agree on this. Roughly summarized is empathy the ability to discern what is going on in another. Empathy has many facets, one of the best-known models for this is Davis' "Interpersonal Reactivity Index". The model includes the following dimensions:

  • Perspective assumption: the ability to take other people’s point of view
  • Compassion: a tendency to have empathetic feelings for others, such as warmth and joy for or concern for others, especially when they have negative experiences
  • Personal concern: a tendency to feel uncomfortable, anxious, or stressed out about others having negative experiences
  • Fantasy empathy: the tendency to identify strongly with fictional characters, for example from books, films or games

Why is empathy important?

Acting empathically does not just mean understanding what the other is thinking, feeling or planning. It also means to have compassion for understanding, if possible, to support him. Why should children necessarily learn this? Acting really empathically is extremely important for many areas of daily life: for good social interaction, for establishing stable relationships, for assuming social responsibility, for resolving conflicts, as well as for professional success. So when our children learn to meet other people emphatically, they have the most important luggage with them for their journey through life.

How do children learn empathy? Tips for parents

The good news: Anyone can learn empathy, we humans have the potential for it. The so-called "mirror neurons", which are fully developed between the ages of three and four, allow us to understand the actions and feelings of others. The bad news: like so much else, empathic action needs to be practiced diligently so that it works properly. In Harvard University's "making caring common" program, researchers and practitioners have dealt intensively with how we can raise our children to be empathetic and caring people. We have summarized the best tips for you.

Tip # 1: Build an empathic relationship with your own child

Like you to me, so to you: Children learn to respect others and to deal with them emphatically, above all, when they are dealt with in this way. A close and loving relationship with their parents also makes them more open to their advice and values.

So if you pay attention to the physical and emotional needs of your child and respond to them, you are well on the way to becoming a role model for empathy. This of course includes showing affection, but also ensuring a stable and safe environment and respecting the individual personality of the child.

Empathic parents are important so that children learn to be empathic themselves. | © Caroline Hernandez - UnsplashRegular time together provides a space to pay attention and express appreciation. For example, anchor fixed rituals in the evening or plan joint activities at recurring intervals. Also through frequent conversations about (own) feelings and experiences and those of the other, children can learn empathy. Show interest in the things that are important to your child and encourage them in their efforts and successes. You can do this, for example, with sentences like:

  • "What was the best of your day today? What was the hardest?"
  • "What did you achieve today that you were happy about?"
  • "What did someone do nice for you today? What did you do nice for someone?"
  • "What did you learn today - at school or outside of it?"

Tip # 2: exemplify empathy, compassion & care

As a role model for empathy, we should of course not only be emphatic towards our children, but also show in other life how important empathy and compassion are. So show compassion for others, including people who are very different from you. Compassion does not mean compassion, but understanding and openness to the feelings, situations or ideas of others.

It starts with small things, like worries or To take other people's difficulties seriouslyto be interested in the challenges that different people master, or to help others. Perhaps you even have the opportunity to get involved (regularly) for the common good, ideally together with your child.

Tip # 3: Prioritize empathy and care

Of course, all parents want their children to be happy. However, in order for children to learn empathy and compassion, they must also know that the needs of others are just as important. A beginning is, for example, to change the often used phrase "The most important thing is that you are happy" to "The most important thing is that you are kind to others and that you are happy".

The world doesn't just revolve around you and yourself Your own interests and activities should also be put on the back burner. This includes helping around the house, even if you prefer to play, being friendly even when your mood is not so good or not interfering when someone else is talking.

You can also emphasize the importance of empathy in conversations with other adults that the child is attending. Ask the teacher not only about the grades of your child, but also how they are committed to the class community, the trainer not only about their performance, but how they contribute to the team, tell not only about your little ones' mathematical or artistic talents, but also from their ability to empathize and their sense of community.

Tip # 4: learn empathy - practice makes perfect

Learning empathy is, in a way, like learning a new language. The facilities are there, but you just have to keep practicing certain aspects, make mistakes, try again. How can I better understand the feelings of others, how can I empathize with others? So give your child the chance as often as possible to train emphatic behavior and to adopt the perspectives of others.

© markzfilter - Pixabay

  • Hold family meetings: Whether due to a conflict in the family or simply at a regular time - sit down with the family, give each room to explain their perspective. Take your child's perspective seriously and encourage them to listen to the other's perspectives just as closely.
  • Promote empathy for peers: Is there a quarrel in the class community or with a friend? Discuss it with your child, encouraging them to include the perspective of all parties to the dispute, and to consider what the other might think and feel about the dispute.
  • Perceiving and reflecting empathy: Whether in situations with others, while reading a book or watching a film - talk to your child about when someone shows empathy, or when they are not showing it.
  • Discuss ethical dilemmas: Talk to your child about where it is difficult to be empathetic. Should I invite someone I know for my birthday that one of my best friends doesn't like? A friend of mine said something not very nice behind the back of a friend, am I going to tell her about it?
  • Promote cooperation: It is great to do something FOR others, but it is even nicer to solve a problem WITH others or to do something for the community. Anyone who supports their child here, for example to take part in community projects, strengthens the social skills of their offspring across the board.

Tip # 5: recognize feelings, develop self-control

If children don't show empathy, it doesn't mean they don't. Often, however, their own feelings stand in the way - such as shame, anger or fear. When children learn to recognize and control their own emotions, it helps a lot to be more empathetic towards others. The first step is to practice at all, to recognize the feelings and to give them a name. Encourage your child to speak and reflect on their feelings: "I see you are angry. Do you know why?" Also Conflict situations can be discussed and trained in this way: Who felt how and why? Name feelings, practice active listening, and try to achieve mutual understanding.

A simple exercise also helps to better control your own emotions: pause, breathe in deeply through your nose and exhale through your mouth and slowly count to five. Practice these steps over and over with your little one first when they are calm - then remind them to do so in situations when emotions want to take control.

Also important: take care of your own well-being regularly, read, go for a walk, take time out where possible. On the one hand, this naturally helps you to deal more calmly and emphatically with others, and on the other hand, your child will also learn from your role model how important it is to deal with yourself carefully.

Tip # 6: broaden your horizons

Empathy isn't just about how much or how little we get of it. An important characteristic of how emphatic someone is is also who they can show empathy for. Most people feel empathy for family or friends, and this is easy even with people who are similar to ourselves. But: Children (and adults) should definitely learn to show empathy towards people outside of this circle, including people who may be completely different from themselves, who do not understand them, who appear strange to them.

News, TV programs or even stories are a good starting point to dare to think outside the box: to talk about the challenges or the needs of others, to discuss the different experiences of children all over the world and thereby to practice taking on very different perspectives.

But children can also learn in their immediate surroundings to jump over their own shadow of empathy. Encourage your child to listen very carefully, also and especially to those who may not be one of your closest friends: for example a classmate who is going through a difficult time or a child who is considered unpopular and annoyed.

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More empathy: off to a better future!

All parents want their children to have a great future. Those who practice being more empathic with their children (but also themselves) have already given them immensely important skills for the future. And yes, now it's getting a little cheesy: it also helps make the world a better place.

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