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Parent Trap: Empathy

Empathy can be seen in children during their very first year of life, and it is arguably one of the most important qualities to develop in them as children grow into adults. Showing empathy means sensing other people’s emotions while imagining what they might be thinking or feeling to better understand their perspective.

Newborns have been observed crying in response to another newborn’s cry, an act researchers agree is an early sign of empathy development. Studies also show that when a newborn hears a baby crying, their sucking motion and heart rate slow as a response to the sound. At around six months of age, babies start using social referencing, which is when they will look to a parent to gauge their reaction to a person or situation which then influences how the baby responds.

Studies show that at around two years of age, children start to show genuine empathy—understanding how other people feel even when they don’t feel the same way themselves. And not only do they feel another person’s pain, but they actually try to soothe it. More advanced reasoning about other people’s emotions develops by around age five or six, and research shows that parents who promote and model empathy raise more empathetic children. Not surprisingly, people with empathy have stronger interpersonal connections and are more eager to collaborate, effectively negotiate, demonstrate compassion and offer support. They also are better team players who are more willing to work with others to solve problems. One study of around 900 kids aged 11 to 13 found participants with higher levels of empathy were more likely to engage in “assertive bystander behavior,” meaning they were willing to stand up to a bully on behalf of someone not in their peer group. So, here are some ways can you help yours kids develop more empathy:

  1. Establishing a safe, secure and loving relationship with parents is the first milestone. A child who feels accepted and understood by you will be able to accept and understand others as they grow.
  2. Label and validate your child’s emotions. When they see someone else upset, ask questions: I wonder why Annie is crying? Why do you think Annie looks so sad?
  3. Use pretend play with dolls or stuffed animals to allow kids to adopt different personas and solve problems as a different character.
  4. Read or make up stories that involve kids or people with diverse emotions. Parents can pause while reading to ask: How do you think that made them feel? How would that make you feel? What would help them feel better? Researchers have shown that reading fiction promotes empathy by allowing kids to see the world through someone else’s eyes. Together parents and children can look at a character’s body language and facial expressions and then identify corresponding emotions.
  5. Spend time with diverse people. From a very young age, we find it easier to empathize with someone we see as similar.  Kids can learn that they have many things in common with all kinds of folks by spending time with others. Teach your children to respect all people despite perceived differences.
  6. Regularly considering other people’s perspectives helps make empathy a natural reflex. Discuss with your child ethical dilemmas that help them appreciate various perspectives. In addition, teach your children to be aware of the consequences of their actions for others. When they make a mistake, direct their attention to the distress of the person who may be hurt by their behavior. This strengthens their motivation to do the right thing and avoid mistakes in the future.

Acknowledge your children whenever they go out of their way to show kindness and compassion, in big ways and small. Higher levels of empathy and understanding produce more courage to do the right thing and to speak out against injustice. Empathy could be one of the most important qualities to develop in young people so that they go on to be successful actors in a complicated world.

Tim Jordan, M.D., is a behavioral pediatrician who works with girls in grade school through college. Check out his new online course, Parenting girls: The challenges girls face today with their feelings and friends and what they need, at drtimjordan.com.


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