Ways to Cultivate Empathy (And Why That's Important)
Empathy, the ability to understand and share in another person's emotions, is a vital skill for everyone to develop. It helps us relate to and better understand the people in our lives and have effective communication around our emotions. Helping your child cultivate empathy can allow them to better navigate the classroom, the playground, and your family dynamics by giving them a view into other's feelings and a better understanding of how others move through the world.
So how can you do this with your child?
Create a safe space. Most importantly, make your home a safe space for sharing feelings, one that validates them and sets healthy boundaries.
Help them develop their emotional vocabulary. There are many words for emotions beyond sad, happy, angry, and scared. Here's a great list for the younger set that can serve as a good jumping off point at any age.
Share your thoughts and feelings rather than holding them in. Mirror healthy ways of speaking about your emotions to your children (i.e., a calm conversation about how something affected you rather than yelling or ranting).
Model imperfection. Tell them about instances when you were able to have empathy and times when you weren't. Let them know that empathy is a skill that takes practice and we all make mistakes with it now and then.
Share stories with your child that open them to the varied experience of others. Two excellent examples I've read recently are Wonder by RJ Palacio and El Deafo by Cece Bell.
Notice their feelings and talk about them. Any chance you have to demonstrate that you've noticed their feelings and would like to understand them better is great modeling of empathy. And it gives them a chance to practice their emotional vocabulary.
Remember it won't happen overnight. Empathy is a complex skill and children become more adept at it as their brain develops. Be patient with them as their ability grows.