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Raising an empathetic child

An empathetic person has the ability to share another person’s feelings, particularly emotions, and truly sympathize with them.

A genuinely empathetic person is less likely to cause emotional or physical harm to others and is generally a kind person.

Feeling what others feel, or, putting yourself in someone else’s shoes is a crucial building block for other caring emotions such as gratitude, kindness, and compassion. Studies have found that kids as young as 18 months could master a key component of empathy: the ability to tune in to people’s emotions. By age four, if they are taught well, they may be able to partake in physical caring gestures and start to think about others’ feelings in relation to their own.

Not everyone is born with it

Empathy in a child is a praiseworthy trait that paves the way to becoming a kind, responsible, civic-minded person. However, not everyone is born to empathize with others. It is therefore a parent’s duty to instill this quality into their child, for this goes way further than merely correcting and punishing misbehavior.

Dealing with a child’s negative emotions

Responsible parents throughout the ages have been disciplining their young in various ways and they do this with the child’s best interest at heart. Most of such disciplinary actions involve punishment, time-out, confiscation of a favourite item, etc. Discipline first, explain later seems to be the order of a rough day. This leads to a child having to suppress negative emotions, leaving him or her feeling hurt, sad, frustrated or misunderstood even. What most parents failed to see is that the misdeed likely happened due to the child not being able to process or handle certain emotions any better, leading to an outburst, a tantrum, a push, shove, etc

Hence, a more wiser approach would be to:

  • Firstly, allow the child to cool down before explaining why it’s wrong to act in the way he or she did
  • Teach your child ways to handle negative emotions, e.g. walk away; talk to an adult; etc.
  • Remember: Be sensitive to the fact that children feel as much as we do, and generally do not possess the coping mechanism to calmly handle stressful situations.

Help your child feel more

Punishment may stop the misbehavior momentarily, but will not solve the problem permanently. Only helping the child feel a sense of belonging and significance through encouragement will have long-term positive effects – Jane Nelson, author of Positive Discipline

Respecting and addressing a child’s needs

If your toddler is experiencing an inconsolable melt-down, instead of getting upset, try saying something like, “You probably need a nap. I’d be cranky too if I was as tired as you. Let’s go home and lie down.” This shows in a warm and loving way that you understand and respect how your little one is feeling.

Walk the talk

Children learn the most by observing and mimicking the people closest to them. Hence as parents, if we want our children to exhibit appropriate behavior, then we need to model such behaviour ourselves!

Children generally know when they have done something to make their parent/parents angry. The next time this happens, use the experience to teach your child how to handle that anger. Take a break and cool off. Tell your child you will discuss the issue when you have calmed down.

When it’s time to talk to your child, go through those underlying emotions with your child. If you’re angry with your child for darting away from you at the mall earlier, try explaining it like this: “I was really angry with you for running off like that at the mall today. The reason I felt angry is because I was afraid that you would get lost and I would not be able to find you.”

Keep in mind too, that your child may have a reason to have ‘misbehaved’, – in this case, running off at the mall. He may have saw something he fancied, or thought he saw someone he knew, etc.

Explaining what made you feel angry while modelling calm behaviour throughout it helps a child to associate anger and panic, for instance, with the need to calm down. This will eventually help your child express and handle negative emotions in a healthy way.

Be approachable

Everyone makes mistakes and your little one will be making loads of mistakes while growing up. To learn from their mistakes, they must first learn to forgive themselves, for only then can they behave any better in the future. So, if your child is in the midst of confessing to a wrongdoing, the last thing he or she needs is to feel like a criminal!

A parent’s job is to:

  • create that sense of safety
  • listen without judgment
  • make sure their kid knows they will not get into trouble for confessing to what they have done
  • resist condemning the child for way he or she was feeling when the incident took place

Listen to what the little one has to say before doing your thing in guiding your child towards better ways of handling difficult or morally-challenging situations in the future.

Watch your steps!

You may be doing a great job teaching your child to be mindful that words have an impact on others’ feelings. However, if she then finds you snapping at your spouse due to a slip-up, you’re sending the poor kid confusing messages! It may be easier said than done, but when that happens, apologize to your ‘victim’ in front of your little observant one. Then say something like, “I was feeling really sad that Daddy forgot to bring in the dry laundry when it rained, and I took it out on him. I’m sorry I acted mean.”

Give due recognition to kindness

If you see your child offering a favourite toy to another kid, call attention to it by saying, “That was very kind of you to let Jackie play with your favourite doll.” You can even add something like, “How do you think Jackie felt when you shared with her?”

The aim is to help your child cultivate pleasure from being kind, giving and sharing, which are all traits that make up a pleasant, lovable individual.

Expand your child’s circle of concern

It’s easier for children to learn to empathize with those in their immediate circle, but they also have to learn to zoom out and take in the big picture and consider the many perspectives of the people they interact with daily, including those who are vulnerable. Later on, they’ll also need to consider how their decisions, such as quitting a sports team or a band for example, may affect others. Especially in our more global world, children need to develop concern for people who live in very different cultures and communities other than their own.

Helpful points to remember:

Make sure your children are friendly and grateful with all the people in their daily lives, such as friends and caregivers.

Encourage children to care for those who are vulnerable. Give children some simple ideas for stepping into the “caring and courage zone”, like comforting a classmate who was teased by others, or sharing a meal with a friend who forgot his lunchbox.

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