Developing empathy for others is one of the greatest gifts we can give our kids. It’s a “must have” if we want to equip them for healthy intimate relationships in life.
Every child is capable of learning empathy, but it can be quite difficult to learn (especially if your child is experiencing a lot of anxiety and stress in life).
In fact, often we expect our kids to just “know” how to be empathetic, even when things are stressful. In the heat of conflict, I may ask, “Do you know how [your sibling] feels right now!?” and expect my child to be able to give an insightful answer.
If our kids really could respond insightfully at that point, they might say something like this: “Regretfully, I don’t know how my sibling feels. My brain is in a fight/flight state, and my amygdala has shut down what little there is of my still quite immature frontal lobe, including the section* where I can process empathy. So my sister might as well be speaking Wookie.”
Clearly, the starting point for teaching kids empathy is not in the heat of the moment.
We learned this pretty quickly with our kids. Our oldest son, Daniel, was dealing with the stress of an extremely gifted brain and intense emotions. He didn’t easily “step into another person’s shoes” or perspective, especially when upset. Bethany generally understood others’ feelings but had difficulty verbalizing her own during conflict resolution. Our youngest, Noah, was a happy-go-lucky guy who simply didn’t think about feelings a lot. We had our work cut out for us.
We learned some practical ways to help all our kids develop the rich emotional insight that has equipped them for wonderful relationships in life – with each other and others. The framework that guided us in our early years was particularly helpful in this challenge of developing empathy.
Let’s take a look at how each level of the Framework informs our approach to developing empathy in our kids.
Before I engage with my child about something, it’s helpful to ask, “What’s going on with me about this issue?” “How did my family view expressions of emotion when I was growing up, and how does that affect me now?” I may well discover I have hurtful judgments of my struggling child that he inadvertently perceives – like “Anger is bad, and you’re an angry kid.” These can become my child’s “inner voice” that shapes his identity and guides his choices.
When we approached Daniel’s emotional challenges from a judgment of, “He’s such a narcissist,” we were stuck before we started. We got unstuck when we embraced a much more accurate belief of, “His intensity is too much for him to handle. He needs our help to learn to understand his own emotions, and then understand those of others.” This kind of a perspective change allows parents to “drop their baggage” and be a safe, guiding presence.
If a child has intense or difficult emotions and a parent’s primary goal is to suppress the behavioral expression of that emotion, it’s quite unlikely the child will learn to empathize with others. Instead, she’ll believe you are against her and be way too busy self-protecting and feeling hurt, angry, and resentful to think about how someone else is feeling.
To help kids get to the point where they can understand others, first we need to make sure they feel truly safe and loved. Here are some ideas for how to do that:
- Start with snuggling. Research tells us that the brain chemical oxytocin (the “cuddle hormone”, released especially during physical affection) increases emotional insight and empathy. So a great time to talk about understanding emotions is when I’m snuggling with or sharing an affectionate moment with my child. It naturally equips them with the brain chemistry they will need for insight and empathy.
- Empathize strongly with my child. One of the most effective ways to connect with anyone is to express heartfelt empathy. Empathy is not just a nice way to connect with my child, but it is essential for kids to learn to understand themselves before they can understand others. I can narrate through my child’s day connecting facial expressions/body language with emotions. “I saw a big smile on your face when Ryan invited you to play. Did that make you really happy?” “But your voice got loud when he took the toy. Did you feel angry because you really wanted to play with it?” This sets the stage for your child to expand on what you said, as he feels safe and understood. Adding empathy of your own builds a bridge to your child’s heart: “I would get mad, too, if someone grabbed something I liked out of my hand.”
Empathizing with our struggling child isn’t just a trick to manipulate my child into becoming the “compassionate child of my dreams.” Empathy is how Jesus relates to us.
“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are–yet he did not sin.” Hebrews 4:15
It’s because He empathizes with us that He can help us. Hebrews 2:18 adds: “For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.”
Jesus’ example of empathy is a powerful reminder than when I express heartfelt empathy with my child after taking the time to fully understand what’s troubling her, it’s holy work that enables me to truly help her.
- What hurtful judgments might I have about my child? (The child that struggles the most to understand other people’s point of view.)
- What true belief would help me approach my child with empathy and a desire to help and equip him for his relational challenges?
- What are some key situations in which my child struggles to understand others?
- What is she feeling at that time and how could I express empathy?
We’ll look at the next two segments of the Framework in Part 2, as we dive into creative ways to help my child understand other people’s emotions (Coach) and helping kids access that in the heat of the moment (Correct).
* The anterior insular cortex is where emotions are processed.