Empathy is the ability to understand the thoughts and feelings of others, and ultimately, to feel what another person is feeling. Once we are able to feel what another person is feeling, we can choose to show “compassionate empathy.” This is where we are move beyond understanding and take action. For example, with compassionate empathy, when we recognize someone is feeling down, we can offer comfort.
Children often find it difficult to see things from someone else’s point of view and to understand that others might think or feel differently. It’s generally during the preschool years that children begin to understand that other people have feelings that are different from their own, and children will sometimes attempt to offer comfort by responding to another’s distress in a way that might make that person feel better.
To begin gauging your child’s empathy, observe your child’s reactions and behavior in situations where another person is expressing strong emotions. For example, does your child try to hug or pat the back of a playmate or sibling who is crying? Is your child able to verbally identify the emotions being expressed by others, such as differentiating between tears of sadness or tears of joy?
How to Help
Look for opportunities your child might have to see situations from another’s point of view, and actively praise efforts to consider another’s feelings. When he forgets to keep in mind the other person’s situation, prompt him to think about other possible viewpoints. You can do so by asking, “What do you think ______ felt about that?”
Communicate with your child when you are considering the situations of others before making a decision. He may not be aware that you took the time to think about someone else unless you tell him. If your child sees you trying to understand what other people are thinking and feeling, especially if the other person is him, then he will be more likely to follow your lead.
Ask your child to imagine this situation: A boy who sits behind you at school keeps kicking the back of your chair. You have asked him twice to stop. Each time, he stops for a minute, but then begins to kick it again. You can feel yourself getting angry.
Try acting out this scene to see how your child negotiates his own feelings and takes into perspective the feelings of his classmate. Praise him for the solutions he creates that include the other person’s perspective. If your child is struggling to understand why his classmate might be kicking his chair, stop and brainstorm possible ideas for what might make a person act this way. For example, the other child may be angry, nervous, or excited and finding it hard to sit still.
Make plans with your child on when and where we should consider how someone else is feeling and thinking. For example, before deciding to take something that isn’t ours. List specific opportunities when your child will have the chance to practice perspective taking and empathy. Being exposed to new people and new situations can increase opportunities for practicing the skill of considering different perspectives.
Music can convey many different emotions. Help your child select several different songs, from calm and soothing to rapid and energetic. Ask your child to close his eyes to minimize distractions and listen to the different songs. After each, discuss what emotions or story the artist was trying to tell and why. Emphasize paying attention to your own feelings as a way of understanding those of others. For example, if the song made you feel sad maybe the singer was sad as well. Talk about how understanding what others are feeling, or empathy, can help with good communication.