How to raise children who care
The ability to share someone else’s feelings or experience is called empathy. Being empathic helps us understand that we are all part of an interconnected “we” and can make us more caring towards others. In turn, this can lead to a life full of connections and meaning. In my view, helping our children cultivate empathy is one of the most valuable gifts we can give to them.
It’s typical for small children to consider themselves first as this gives them a better chance of surviving. So parents do not get discouraged when you see egocentric behaviour from your kids. We also know (unsurprisingly!) that the brain area responsible for empathy is underdeveloped in young people. Yet, empathy is a skill that can be learned over time.
All you need to focus on is your role as a parent now and trust that this will help your little ones to build skills to last a lifetime. Your daughter won’t be scratching her friends when she goes to university and your son won’t be biting his co-workers when he starts a job (if they do, you should probably get in touch with me then!). So, what can you do now?
Be present, so you can guide and teach your children to learn this skill through normal everyday interactions. Take opportunities as they arise. For example, when you play with them, when you read to them, or simply when hanging out together.
- Model behaviours such as listening or considering someone else’s different opinions or just being compassionate when they are going through a hard time, and even point out what you are doing. Let your child watch you being concerned for other people and notice your awareness of other’s needs.
This will help them conclude that this is how things are done and empathy will naturally grow as part of their behavioural repertoire.
- Use examples from real life, characters in books or actors on TV. Draw attention to other people’s emotions and experiences, and ask your children questions such as:
- “What is Sarah feeling right now?”
- “Why is Nicholas so mad at his brother for breaking his toy?
- “Daddy is less tolerant of noise than usual today – I wonder what might have happened to him before he came home.”
- “Why do you think Peter got sad when his friend didn’t want to play with him?
- “How can you help?”
This will help them realise that other people have different interests, considerations, and reactions that could be similar to or different from their own.
- Allow them to experience their own negative emotions, such as feeling sad, frustrated or disappointed instead of just quickly distracting them or making things better for them. The key here is to be there for them when this takes place and contain the situation so that children can experience these emotions in a safe environment for as long as they need.
- Listen to them.
- Give them a tight hug and hold them closely.
- Allow them to experience what emotional pain feels like.
- Allow them to express themselves.
- Avoid offering cookies or a mobile phone to take their mind off their sadness.
- Avoid solving the problem for them.
- When they go through this process they’ll become more receptive to talking and then you could help them problem-solve by asking them questions.
This will help them open up the necessary space within them to understand and identify with the pain of others and thus develop empathy. What’s more, it will help them to build the confidence that they can tolerate difficult emotions and overcome them by themselves!
So, as a parent, be there for your child, lead by example, and help your children realise that they belong to a larger whole. Teach them to be kind, understanding, and tolerant by showing empathy towards others. This won’t only benefit them in life by enabling them to have authentic connections with others and thus a more meaningful life, but it will also lead to a better world for all of us.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr Patapia Tzotzoli founded My Psychology Clinic where she gained her reputation working as Clinical Psychologist with clients on one to one basis in London and worldwide via online therapy. She specialises in adult mental health and couples therapy. Studied at the universities of East London, Oxford and Cambridge and trained at the Institute of Psychiatry where she worked across world-renowned NHS Trusts.
Click here to book an online session or in person with Dr Patapia Tzotzoli at My Psychology Clinic.