Parent Q&A: What is empathy and how do I teach it?

In response to all the confusion and pain splashed across our news channels and social media these days, Pastor Robert Madu recently shared that one of the most important things we can do is to embrace empathy. As parents, we’re responsible for raising our children to be empathetic. 

So, what is empathy?

Empathy starts with acknowledging and affirming someone else’s emotions and experiences. It says, “I see how you’re feeling. I get it. I would feel that way, too.” Where sympathy is feeling sorry FOR someone, empathy is feeling their emotions WITH them as you imagine yourself in their situation.

For parents, modeling empathy to our kids can be hard. Our impulse is often to correct their emotions (like “calm down,” or “you don’t need to feel sad about this”) instead of connecting to what they feel (like “that’s frustrating, I’d be upset if that happened, too”). Empathy requires the patience to slow down and respond to deeper, potentially hidden emotions instead of reacting immediately to words and actions. 

Teaching empathy isn’t easy, but it’s incredibly necessary. Empathy will help our kids genuinely celebrate other people’s joys, and it will drive their decision to take action when they see someone else’s pain.

How do I teach my child to be empathetic?

Consistently modeling empathy with your kids is important, but kids also need intentional instruction and conversation about showing empathy to others. Try these steps to help develop empathy in your child:

  1. Help your kids name their own emotions. (Are they sad or disappointed? Are they really feeling mad, or are they just acting out because they’re anxious about something?) When kids understand the range of their own emotions, they can recognize what other people are feeling more easily.
  2. Teach them to recognize emotions in other people. Notice pictures of people in magazines, characters in their favorite TV shows, or even the people around you. Encourage your kids to pay attention not only to people’s words and actions, but also to their facial expressions, body language, and tone. Help them connect the emotions that may go with these visible reactions.
  3. Practice “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes” as you read together. Take time to practice empathy in a safe space as you read with your kids. Notice the character’s emotions, ask your child why the character feels that way, and then pose the question, “How would you feel if you were him/her?” It can be difficult for kids to separate themselves from their own experiences and try to think from someone else’s perspective. The more they practice this with your guidance, the more likely they’ll be to respond empathetically when they encounter someone else’s real life struggles.
  4. Put empathy into action by volunteering together in your community. As you serve, be sure your child understands who you’re serving. Talk about what those people are experiencing or feeling so your child can see the connection between the empathy you feel for someone and the active response of serving them.