by Kerry Hart, LLMFT
A child’s world is relatively small, as they tend to believe it’s only as big as what they can see and touch. It can be difficult for them to understand that other people may have perspectives other than their own. The responsibility falls on their parents to teach them about the world around them and how others can be affected by their actions and words. Teaching a child to experience empathy gives them the ability to look outside of themselves to care about others.
Showing a toddler pictures of faces demonstrating a range of emotions will help them recognize these feelings in others. While they may not be old enough to understand the complexity of emotion, your child will be able to understand there are different ones and what they look like. Take things a step further by giving a name to feelings and pointing out when someone might experience them. Watching movies or TV shows on your child’s level can also help you explain what emotional reactions may look like. These steps will help your child understand what they are feeling in their own day-to-day lives.
Eventually, your little one will run into conflict, be it with a sibling, classmate or even you. Allow your child space and time to calm down from a disagreement, but be sure to discuss the situation after the fact; this will provide an excellent example of how negative feelings can feel like for them. Use this opportunity to discuss what everyone in the conflict may have been feeling and why to help your kiddo step outside of their feeling and try to understand the experience of others.
Should your child witness you experience conflict, use it as an opportunity to illustrate how important it is to
consider the feelings of others. Model for them the type of resolution skills you would like to see them use in their own lives.
Let them see you contemplating all of the feelings and experiences that are present in the conflict.
Keep your words and emotions in control as your child watches. This will help them navigate their own emotions while keeping those of others in mind in order to come to a resolution of which they can be proud.
Allow your child space and time to calm down from a disagreement, but be sure to discuss the situation after the fact; this will provide an excellent example of how negative feelings can feel like for them.
Teaching your children early on to be respectful of others will help them when they eventually come across someone who may appear different from them. Teach your child to ask polite questions when they do not understand something or see someone experiencing a life different than theirs; this simple action will foster their interest as you encouraging them to understand that everyone has a unique story.
Give your child the gift of experiencing empathy so they may enjoy shared experiences with others. Allow them to experience sharing joy when friend achieves success or provide them with the ability to be supportive of a family member dealing with disappointment. If you teach your child to put themselves in someone else’s shoes they will be more likely to develop long-lasting relationships and build their own support system wherever they may go.