Tips for Teaching Children Empathy

Tips for Teaching Children Empathy - Parenting Like Hannah
Photo by sbhland
When Jesus told the people to love others as they loved themselves, I imagine most of them thought, “That one is easy”. On the surface, I would imagine most of us think of ourselves as being kind and helpful the majority of the time. Jesus was really asking us to go beyond that though. I think when you put this command with others in the Bible about caring for our neighbors, widows, orphans, the poor, our brothers and sisters in Christ and a host of others, there is a deeper message.

A large part of caring for others is the ability to be empathetic. It is entirely too easy to accidentally become like the other people in the story of the “Good Samaritan.” How many times have we walked by someone who is sad, either assuming someone else would take care of it or not even really seeing the person or her pain? We need to train ourselves and our children to see the hurting people around us, identify how they are hurting and then help them in the best possible ways. I believe developing a strong sense of empathy can make us more like the loving Christians Jesus was really calling us to be.

Empathy is a trait that can be developed and grown throughout our lives. Learning to put yourself in the place of another emotionally is particularly easy to teach to children. I believe children who are well cared for as infants have an almost instinctive empathy. Many mothers can recount stories of very young babies patting them soothingly on the back when the mother was sad or crying. That very young infant understands that for him tears mean pain and Mommy’s pats on the back help. When he sees Mommy’s tears, he tries to help comfort in the way that helps him – sweet pats on the back.

Unfortunately, life gets busy as our children get older. We teach them to be kind and helpful, but empathy is not always something we actively teach. Our children help when asked, but how many of them can see another child and realize the child is hurting through her smiles? Does he know what to do when his friend is in emotional pain?

There are things you can do to actively develop empathetic loving in your child. The game below and it’s variations can be played in a lot of different ways. Some can be silly and others more serious. I would caution however, that when being silly you are careful not to allow your children to be disrespectful to other people. It can undermine what you are trying to teach, even if they are not trying to be mean.

The easiest version can be done while reading picture books to your children. When reading, stop periodically and ask your child how the character in the story must have felt at this point in the story. Was Red Riding Hood scared on her way to Grandmother’s house? Was she excited? How did the Big Bad Wolf feel while he was waiting for Red Riding Hood to appear? Hungry? Excited? Nervous?

The answers are not as important as the process. You want to begin training your child to understand that other people (or in this case wolves!) have feelings just like he does. At this point, very young children are also learning to give names to emotions. What is that yucky feeling in your stomach when you think something bad might happen? (Learning these words will also help your child express emotions verbally rather than using hitting and other negative behaviors. “Use your words not your hands”)

You can have fun with it and play “emotion” charades. Perhaps you can exaggerate your facial expressions when showing certain emotions and announce what you are feeling in a silly way. Have fun with it. The idea is to train your child to attach facial expressions and actions to emotions as well as words.

As your child gets older, you can shift to news stories or real people. You will still need to ask the questions and at times may need to help your child decipher visual clues. For example, suppose a new neighbor stops by to chat. Your child may think nothing of the talk or even become annoyed if something they want is delayed because of the conversation. After the person leaves, you may say, “Alice must really be lonely since she is new. Did you notice how she kept trying to stay longer than most people might? I thought she looked a little sad around the eyes, too.”

If your child has processing disorders, your clues may need to be stronger. Temple Grandin (her book is a must read!), actually asked co-workers and others to tell her when she missed their non-verbal cues. You may have to say to your child, “When I get wrinkles in my forehead and frown, I am really angry.” There are also a lot of pictures on Google images of people showing emotions, Show them to your child and have him practice by telling you what emotion the person is showing. Some children may even need photo flash cards for constant review.

People-watching is another great way to develop empathy in your child. (Just be careful you don’t say anything that might be misunderstood by people near you!) Does that mother with the screaming child look tired, overwhelmed, angry, or a combination? Real people may experience and show on their faces and in their words and actions a variety of emotions almost simultaneously. Older children should be able to understand and begin developing empathy for someone who is angry and sad or happy and sad at the same time.

The final step is training your child to recognize the true emotion behind seemingly emotionless words. Someone may say they are fine, when in reality they just are afraid if they say more they may embarrass  themselves by bursting into tears in public. People are not trying to lie, they have just been trained by society to show no negative emotions except in a sanctioned time and place (like a funeral). Can your teen read between the lines? Can she tell if her friend’s “fine” is really “horrible”? If you can pick things up that your child is missing, you may want to consider working with them on some of these exercises.

The next step is training your child what to do once they recognize an emotion in people. This step is really tricky. What one person may want when they are sad may make someone else sadder. Often people who are hurting don’t really know what they want or need to start healing. Others have been trained to not burden others, so their response is always “I don’t need anything.”

So how do we train our child to negotiate these turbulent waters and really give the people around them the love Jesus asked us to give them? An easy way to start is to prepare your child to help people who “don’t need anything.” Go back to the earlier games. This time though, ask your child what would make them feel “better” or loved, if they felt that way. Would Red Riding Hood have felt better if someone offered to go with her? Would the Wolf have felt better if a neighbor knocked on the door and brought him a casserole? Does your lonely new neighbor need a pan of brownies and a quick visit?

Teach your child to ask first in more complicated situations. This is especially important if they can sense someone is having a variety of conflicting emotions. The best course is often to ask if you have identified the emotion the person is feeling correctly. “You seem sad to me. Is something wrong?” Once your child has confirmed they have guessed the right emotion, then they can offer to help. “What can I do to help?” If the person doesn’t suggest something, then your child can.” “I always want a hug when I am sad. Do you want a hug?” I want people to help me when I am tired and overwhelmed. Do you want me to come help you pack up your room for the move?”

Most importantly, follow through with your child and help the people who are hurting around you. Send a card to someone who hasn’t been to church in awhile. Take a plate of cookies and visit with people when they move into town. Offer to watch the triplets so the new mom can go to the grocery store by herself. If your child’s offers of help are accepted, make sure he follows through and does what he promised the person he would do to help. This is especially important if the person asks her to pray for them. Make sure everyone in your family is either praying in front of each other or reminds each other to keep praying for the person in need.

Training your child to be empathetic may require some intentional parenting on your part. It may also require you to be more aware of the true feelings of the people around you in an intentional way. It may mean you need to carve out more time to help others. Parenting is hard work and teaching empathy can require a lot of time and effort. I believe the results will be worth it, though.  Empathetic, loving Christians who actively help the hurting are such a strong testimony for the Lord.  That plate of brownies made with empathy and love may eventually lead to changing eternity for someone.

Published by

Thereasa Winnett

Thereasa Winnett is the founder of Teach One Reach One and blogger at Parenting Like Hannah. She holds a BA in education from the College of William and Mary. She has served in all areas of ministry to children and teens for more than thirty years and regularly leads workshops for ministries and churches. She has conducted numerous workshops, including sessions at Points of Light’s National Conference on Volunteering and Service, the National Urban Ministry Conference, Pepperdine Bible Lectures, and Lipscomb’s Summer Celebration. Thereasa lives in Atlanta, GA with her husband Greg, where she enjoys reading, knitting, traveling and cooking.

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