Empathy is the ability to share and understand another’s feelings. Relating to other people is one of the most critical developmental steps that your child needs to master during early stages of his childhood. Since empathy is a skill that he is not born with it must be taught, learned and then practiced. It is important for mom and dad to be aware of their child’s progress and purposefully model this; talk about it with him and find ways for him to get better at it.
As you practice empathy, actual neuronal pathways are created and deepened and exercised in the brain. Our brains actually generate the same emotions that we recognize in the other person (this is proven in MRI brain scans). The empathy pathways in your brain are designed to pick up another person’s feelings, process the information then actually feel the same feeling.
Because physical presence and face to face relationship is the learning ground for fully understanding another person, empathy is stunted with a digital diet heavy on video games and social media. It gets harder to master this character trait as the number of screens, virtual friends, and isolated play increases in your child’s life. The harsh nature of gaming (killing your best friend in Minecraft to shooting a police office in Grand Theft Auto), combined with the subtle (and not so subtle) disrespect and cruelty in social media will hurt and desensitize your child’s ability to discern pain in another person. While one may argue that being on a team in a video game can help build empathy, it simply isn’t true. All popular games are designed to be a very competitive ‘me first’ training ground. It is a game and you are ultimately playing to win, not playing to worry about all the other player’s problems. Games may develop other skills in your child but empathy is not one them.
What is your child’s empathy (selfless acts) quotient? Think about that today and think of some creative ways to practice more empathy in your home. Taking care of a pet can be the beginning of building empathy but there are many other ways to teach empathy skills in your home.
Here are some practical tips:
- Non-distracted true listening with a eye to eye contact and no screen buzzing or interrupting. Show your child how to do this by doing it with him. Turn your phone off and listen to him.
- Sharing feelings in the conversation, empathy is a 2 way street. Don’t just listen but offer kind words without solving the problem too quickly every time. “I know how you must feel; I was very scared and sad the day I lost my dog too.”
- Being aware of surroundings. Be attentive when out; help an elderly person, offer to carry something for someone who is struggling or hold the door for a stranger etc. Teach your child to use his senses to ‘see’ what is going on around him and anticipating other people’s needs. He can’t do this if he is focusing on his handheld when you are doing errands.
- Offer your help. This is a great way to show empathy because it requires giving your time which actually shows you care more than saying you care. Stop what your doing to help your son with a puzzle he is frustrated with or have your child help you with his grandparents with a project they are having trouble with. Show your child how put the other person first.
- Physical contact. Human touch is very powerful activating empathy pathways and increasing oxytocin hormone levels making both feel better. Even a hand on the shoulder or pat on the back is healing, conveying more than words. Giving a hug or a double handshake (shaking your child’s hand then putting your other hand on top) is a strong sign of empathy and very important to give and receive on a regular basis.
- Talking with people. One of the best ways to build empathy is to teach your child to talk with adults when you are out; be friendly and teach them to focus on the other person in the conversation. Teach them to ask good questions, use humor and make other people feel important. This act will take the focus off your child and engage the other person. He should learn how to look the other person in the eye and start a conversation. Practice with the clerk at the store: “How is your day going today sir?” or at the vet, “What do you like best about your job?” Teaching your child the art of communication with others will build his empathy skills.
- Offer help and assistance without passing judgment. Teach your child that it is not his job to criticize or focus on the problem but to offer help instead letting the other person know that you are in it with them, “I am here to help you till we figure it out, we are in this together!”
- Use your imagination: An active imagination will help your child feel another’s feelings. This can be developed and practiced by reading fiction and learning how to feel the feelings of the characters in the book.
Empathy creates compassion and makes us a caring human being and society. It is important for our own mental health too and is a keystone habit for success in life. Screens during childhood can move our kids away from developing deep human connections toward a place where time moves too fast, deep feelings of caring for others are pushed aside and values are not clearly understood. Purposefully make empathy part of each day and before long your child’s E-Q will be soaring!