Food for Thought: Is empathy important and should parents be teaching it?
Empathy is being aware of and showing concern for another person’s situation or feelings.
Empathy and concern for other people allow us to appreciate what we have and how we can help others.
Not being empathetic can lead to people doing what they like regardless of how it affects others and this can lead to petty and major crimes against others. Children who show no feelings of empathy are often found bullying or habitually teasing other children.
Researchers have identified relationships between the use of certain parental child rearing practices and the development of empathetic feelings, understanding and social behavior in children.
They found reasoning with children regarding the effects of their behavior on others and the importance of being kind and sharing is effective in promoting empathy and social behavior.
Parental modeling of empathetic caring behavior toward children and others in the child’s presence is strongly related to children’s development of caring attitudes and behavior.
Furthermore, when children have hurt others or caused them distress, research supports the practice of giving explanations as to why the behavior is harmful and suggestions to make amends.
Parents who encourage their children to discuss their feelings and problems are fostering empathy. Parents who are rejecting, who withdraw and are inconsistent or neglectful in meeting their child’s emotional needs often produce children who are not empathetic.
Likewise, children from homes in which there is physical abuse have low levels of empathy. They are unable to recognize the emotional states of other people and respond appropriately.
In order to teach empathy in children, you must be empathetic.
This means validating theirs or other people’s feelings. For example, saying “I see that you are upset” and not dismissing the situation with “get over it.” Do not stand for hurtful behavior.
Have them put themselves in the place of others. Have them treat others like they would want to be treated. Explain that there are people in this world who do things without thinking about how it affects other people and that is not acceptable behavior.
Teach your child for every cause there is an effect. If the teacher says your child pushed another child down or stole money, then it is the parent’s job to provide consequences for this action.
Discipline is a good way to teach empathy because children realize if they do something inconsiderate, it will not be tolerated. Consequences must be doled out on a consistent basis if this is to work.
Teach your child to notice when someone else has behaved kindly. You might say, for example “Remember how friendly Sam was to you when you joined the soccer team? He helped you feel accepted.”
By doing this you reinforce your child’s understanding of how people’s actions can affect him or her emotionally.
Books also provide wonderful opportunities to explore emotions. Ask your child how s/he thinks the characters in the books are feeling, and how s/he would feel in the same situation.
Finally, expect the same behavior from boys and girls. Our society considers men to be less empathetic than women.
We set up this boy’s code that goes on throughout their lives - “I gotta be tough.”
Boys need to be taught empathy just like girls.
Dr. Leta A. Livoti Ph.D, LCSW, LCPC is a psychotherapist in Thompson Falls. She can be contacted at 827-0700.