When kids feel safe with us and truly understood, they usually will open their hearts. This allows us to walk alongside them in the vulnerable journey of learning about emotions and empathy for others.
As we embark on this journey with them, the more creative and non-judgmental we are, the more they can learn.
Today we’ll look at how to approach teaching kids empathy from the last two principles in our Framework: Coach and Correct.
Coaching our kids is about, well, being a coach! Good coaches keep their eye on the prize — that is, helping their “players” to grow in skills and wisdom. Here are a few things to keep in mind as you coach your kids to grow their empathy.
1. Have fun as you teach about emotions.
Our young, creative, mover-shaker kids were easily bored, and categorized anything that smelled of a condescending lecture with a “blah, blah, blah” label in their brain. So we taught them about emotions by playing a faces game! We’d express an emotion with our face/body language and invite them to guess what the emotion was. Sometimes they took turns portraying the emotion while we guessed. We laughed a lot and learned together.
One mom entertained her kids and taught them about emotions by sharing about her silly conflicts with her sister when she was young. Think of emotions and experiences from your childhood that you could share some fun stories about to help kids think and learn about emotions.
2. Help kids problem-solve their own emotions.
Research tells us that “kids are more likely to show empathic concern for others if they have parents who help them cope with negative emotions in a sympathetic, problem-solving-oriented way.”
Sympathetic problem-solving takes emotions out of the “are they good or bad?” judgment process, and instead ushers them into the “what can you do?” process. If my child goes on a rant about a tough teacher, for example, it’s tempting to judge and condescend (out loud or in my heart) — “You’re just over-reacting because you don’t like the hard work of homework.” A problem-solving conversation might go something like, “So it’s clear you’re pretty angry about this. Are there any other feelings — are you overwhelmed or anxious about it? What do you think your options are? When you’ve gotten through these big assignments before, how did you do that? What do you want to do about this?”
When I react to kids’ big feelings this way — as the norm rather than the exception — it sets kids up to feel more confident about handling their own feelings and the feelings of others. It makes sense — if my child is confident she can find a constructive way to respond to her own difficult feelings, she won’t be judgmental or threatened by the difficult feelings of others.
3. Set kids up to become little social scientists.
When it comes to teaching my kids about emotions, I can make the world a classroom. Especially if my kiddo’s struggles with empathy often relate to a family member, taking the learning to a less in-your-face place will make it easier to take those first steps of learning about emotions.
So instead of trying to teach empathy in the face of a loud, emotional sibling, a more distant emotional child in the grocery aisle or restaurant booth nearby can be a ready-made social science lesson for my kids. “What do you think that little guy is feeling? What do you think he wants? And look at his mom’s face — what do you think she’s feeling? What does she want? What do you think each of them could do to help the situation?” Older kids can also answer the question, “What do you think that person is believing?” In certain situations it may even be appropriate to ask, “Do you think there’s anything we can do to help?”
This approach of guiding kids to notice the emotions of others has been shown effective in increasing empathy and decreasing bullying. In the Roots of Empathy program, kids are guided to make observations about the emotions of a baby brought into their classroom several times at different developmental stages. Babies are inherently endearing and non-threatening to kids, so definitely take advantage of the opportunity to practice empathy whenever you meet any friends with babies!
Parents can also have conversations with kids about the emotions of characters in books, TV shows, or movies. If you’re watching Frozen or reading Horton Hears a Who for the umpteenth time, take advantage of it and talk about the underlying emotions, thoughts, and beliefs of the characters. [Here’s our post about the underlying messages in Frozen!] Kids who were engaged in discussions about the emotional content of books they were reading showed long-lasting increases in empathy compared to kids who just drew pictures about the books.
4. Celebrate the significance of what kids are learning.
When kids do the hard work of learning to identify and work through their own feelings, and understand and care about the feelings of others, they are learning something that a lot of adults never learn. As I help my kids feel really good about these accomplishments, it will strongly promote more learning.
1 Peter 3:8 (The Message) is a great verse for this: “…Be agreeable, be sympathetic, be loving, be compassionate, be humble.”
As you discuss this verse with your kids, ask open-ended, success-based questions, which will be most likely to promote a good discussion: “If a video camera were in the corner of our house, what would it see that would match one of those words?” (Have some ideas for each child in mind to get you started before you ask.) “What would our family be like if we did this verse most of the time? What would our world be like if most of the people did also? How cool that you’re learning this now as kids!”
How do I help my child be empathetic when they are engaged in conflict?
To have realistic expectations, consider — how well do I as an adult really step into another person’s shoes when I’m upset?
It’s pretty hard to be empathetic when we’re angry. It is a set-up for failure if I expect this of my child.
When the heat of family conflict happens, I have my best hope of an empathetic outcome if I guide us all to calm down, establish a tone of caring and empathy for my kids, and then bridge back to previous learning:
- “Do you think you feel kind of like [character in a book] now? What about [your sibling]?”
- “Do you remember when I told you about how I would always snitch my sister’s clothes because I was jealous of her? Does anybody feel jealous now?”
- “Do you remember when the boy at the grocery story yesterday looked so sad and angry when he wanted a toy? Does anybody feel like that?”
These specific memories can link kids’ brains to that calmer state they were in when they heard the story, and facilitate insight and empathy.
- Which one or two of these ideas would best connect with my kids?
- How might I adapt the idea to make sure the learning is engaging for them with their personality and developmental stage?
- If you want customized help tailoring this teaching to your specific family situation, check out our coaching options!