Most parents want to raise children who are kind and loving to others. Teaching them to relate to other people emotionally is a big part of this lesson. Learning empathy is a lifelong pursuit, but it's never too early to start teaching your children how to recognize and identify with others' feelings. Here are a few tips for finding empathy learning opportunities.
Read to Them
Learning social skills such as understanding others' perspectives is one of the many benefits of reading to children. Reading fiction has been linked to increased empathy in people of all ages, particularly when the stories are about characters who are faced with tough decisions. While such stories are often better suited for older children, you can find age-appropriate books about feelings that help you plant the seed of emotional recognition and expression before they even start talking. As children become more verbal, you can have short discussions about the book after reading it together to gauge what they are learning.
Validate Their Feelings
Feeling what others are experiencing is easier to learn when you have been shown empathy yourself. Validating your children's feelings, particularly the negative ones, demonstrates that all emotions are welcome to be explored. If they are allowed to express what they're going through, they learn to recognize and articulate other people's feelings as well.
It's especially important to validate their feelings while you are teaching them. Children are likely to get frustrated when they don't understand something, and judging or shaming them for these feelings can disrupt the learning process. Keep in mind that they are much newer at interpreting others' feelings and emotions than you are. In order to teach them how to do so, you must start by acknowledging what they are going through and helping them work through the difficulty.
Make It a Game
Nonverbal communication, such as facial expression and body language, typically imparts more emotion than words do. These indirect cues can also be more confusing, though, as they can often mean more than one thing. Using play to help children distinguish between different emotional expressions can prepare them for real-life situations in which they will need this skill. There are many ways to practice identifying feelings correctly:
- Watch a favorite movie on mute and talk through what the characters' faces say about their emotions.
- Make face flashcards with different emotional expressions and ask children to hold up the appropriate card when you say a particular feeling.
- Make a habit of people watching when you are in public and ask children what strangers seem to be feeling.
- Play a game of charades and use different feelings as clues.
Model the Behavior
You can teach every lesson well, but if you consistently exhibit a lack of understanding and empathy, that is likely what your children will learn to emulate. Most people follow examples more easily than instruction, and the younger they are, the more they are prone to learning what they live. It may be humbling to realize that your children are watching almost everything you do, but it can also be empowering. Every day is an opportunity to show empathic responses, whether it is to a stranger who cuts you off in traffic or to a friend who is upset. Don't worry that you don't empathize perfectly every time, because it's also helpful for children to see you make amends when you make a mistake.
Raising children is not an easy job, but it can be rewarding to see them put the things you have taught them into practice. When you prioritize empathy as a value you want them to learn, you give yourself the gift of seeing them relate lovingly and kindly to others.