While the capacity to be empathetic is hard-wired into our nervous system, it is also dependent on learning and reinforcement. We can have a big impact on whether it’s strengthened or weakened. Empathy is not a simple trait, but a complex phenomenon that involves three components:
1. It requires being able to be self reflective and distinguish one’s own feelings from those of others.
2. It requires the ability to feel another’s feelings, or see the situation from his or her perspective.
3. It requires being able to manage and modulate one’s own emotional response.
As you might guess, empathy takes a while to develop and needs coaching and support from adults. In fact, young children, without help, are not developmentally mature enough to reliably exhibit empathy. Over time and with practice, as children grow, they can consolidate these skills and become thoughtful and caring adults.
I've outlined some suggestions on how to strengthen the development of empathy, and their importance.
Help children cope with negative emotions
When adults can calmly hear the negative emotions of children, without shaming them, children can feel understood and will not have to hide their anger or misdeeds. Treating negative emotions with respect teaches children that all their emotions are important and valued. When negative emotions are treated without judgment, children will be comfortable with their own negative feelings as well as the negative feelings of others.
Help children see another’s point of view
When a child acts unkind, part of your discipline can be to ask them to see how their behavior affected the other child. Saying something like, "I know you were angry, but hitting hurts. How do you think Billy felt when you hit him?" When we ask kids to think about another’s experience, we help them hold a larger understanding of events and the perspective of others.
Reinforce acts of empathy
When you see a child do something helpful, be sure to comment on it. “Wow, you were really helpful to your little brother when he couldn’t reach his blocks. You just walked over and got them for him. That was really nice of you.” Knowing that we approve of thoughtful acts will encourage more of them.
Comment on other people’s kindness
When someone’s been helpful, take time to comment on it. "Remember when that lady at the store was so nice to you? She saw you fall and helped you get up before I was able to get to you. I really liked that someone was taking such good care of you." Hearing your appreciation helps children know what things you value.
Model caring behaviors
When a neighbor does a special favor for you, talk about it with your child. "When Jim trimmed his bushes the other day, he trimmed ours as well. That was so unexpected and thoughtful. I want to do something for him in return. " Talking about how to reciprocate and asking for suggestions will send a message about the importance of cooperation.
There are many empathy articles and suggestions. I've listed some of my favorite site that teach about empathy below.