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5 easy ways to teach children compassion and empathy

By Mums At The Table 6 min read
Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Raising children with the ability to empathise is key in creating a kinder, more compassionate and loving world.


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According to Collett Smart, Mums At The Table's resident psychologist, many people relate to superhero characters because one of the “rules” for being a superhero means having experienced some sort of trauma, followed by what we now refer to as “post-traumatic growth”. That is, they provide models for coping with and growing through adversity. They take stock of their lives, find meaning in the loss, discover personal strengths, choose a new path and then resolve to help others. Essentially, they use their newfound strengths to become social justice activists.

Another “rule” is that, despite their flaws or weaknesses (because they all still have those), true superheroes choose altruism over the pursuit of personal wealth and power.

The superhero analogy is often used as a way of teaching children to stand up to bullies and to display empathy and kindness. And just as superheroes have different powers and abilities, we also talk about how every individual has different strengths and abilities that enable each of us to help others in different ways. (Although displays of brute force to solve issues is something that also needs to be addressed—but that’s another article.)

"The superhero ideal has become code for the goal of helping others and for works of social justice today," says Collett. "I am an ambassador for International Justice Mission, because they work tirelessly to do just that: They seek justice for the poor and the enslaved in today’s world."

How you can nurture empathy in your child

Raising children with the ability to empathise is key in creating a kinder, more compassionate and loving world.

Megan Jaworski is a mother of two toddler boys and a mindset specialist coach and she offers five simple steps to help us create empathy in our children (as it’s a taught skill)—and it all begins with you: How you model empathy to your children will in turn nurture their empathy towards others. 

1. Connect with them emotionally

When a child is upset, hurt, having a meltdown, confused or frustrated, the quickest way to display empathy starts with touch and being at your child’s level, or simply looking them in the eye with love and compassion.

When a child is angry or having a "meltdown", they’re using the part of the brain which is responsible for the flight, fright or freeze response. When this part of the brain is activated, the part of the brain (known as the frontal lobe) which is responsible for empathy, logic and reason cannot work at the same time. Therefore, trying to reason, argue, yell or lecture your child while they are in this state will not work.

2. Validate their feelings

Validating your child’s feelings requires taking on the perspective of your child. It’s impossible to see things completely from their perspective, but what we can do is see their perspective as truth. This mean we become the learner.

We can make comments such as “That must have hurt”, “You’re having big emotions right now”, or if they’re older, “I can see you’re upset by this and it’s really sad.”

Validating and naming their feelings will help them to process what they’re feeling and tap into that source. Then we have to listen. If we can’t be learners of what our children are experiencing then we can’t be empathetic, and they learn best from our actions.

3. Be non-judgemental

According to Dr Brené Brown in Dare to Lead, we judge others in areas in which we are most susceptible to shame, and we judge people who are doing worse than we are in those areas.

For example, if you find yourself judging others for the way they look, then perhaps it’s because you judge yourself based on your looks, and that’s something you might want to address.

When we judge others in front of our children, they listen and learn from our words and actions. Also, the judgement of others leaves us feeling shame, and when we feel shame, we tend to hurt others. Our children see this, even if we’re not aware. They’re very perceptive to our judgement and shame. Likewise, when our children are feeling judged, which can lead to shame, they will judge and hurt others who trigger their shame.

And here’s the real kicker: Our children will trigger our shame if we see them exhibit a characteristic that we judge ourselves for or feel shame about because we haven’t dealt with it.

Have you ever seen your child get really angry and lose their temper over a small situation and you feel ashamed, embarrassed and angry, so you don’t respond to your child in the way you would like? We can be intolerant towards our children when we see them demonstrate the very thing that we feel judgement and shame about in our lives.

To stay out of judgement requires us to be aware of where we are most vulnerable to feeling shame. This requires us to build a strong self-worth and grounded confidence in who we are, because the more we build on that, the more connected we are to ourselves, the less we will judge others, including our children.

4. Name the emotion

The more emotions we recognise and can name within ourselves, the more we can recognise our children’s emotions. This teaches them to recognise these emotions within themselves and others. (Need help naming that emotion? Check out our free feelings word list below.)

We cannot process an emotion if we can’t identify, name and talk about it. By providing language around that emotion, we’re extending our children’s emotional literacy and therefore improving their ability to empathise.

An example of this for a toddler could be, “Are you feeling scared right now?” If you have a primary or secondary school age child, you might say, “I’m sorry about the fight you had with your friend. That sucks and must be really upsetting. Want to talk about it?”, “I can see you’re frustrated about that homework assignment. I’m ready to listen” or “What I hear you saying is . . . ”.

We might interpret what they’re feeling wrong. In fact, sometimes we will. And that’s OK. So long as we show up from a place of love and remain curious, we can always try again and keep checking in.

Be aware that as parents, we tend to over-talk when wanting to redirect or teach our children. Often, using fewer words equals greater impact. Listen more than you talk. Talk to validate their feelings and empathise, then listen.

5. Pay attention to what you and your child are feeling

The biggest mistake we can make when empathising with someone is to make their feelings about us. Be mindful of what feelings are being brought up in you, your body language and don’t over-identify with what they’re feeling. Remember, it can trigger us and we don’t want that trigger to impact how we connect, empathise and redirect.

It’s so important that we address the situation before us when being empathetic, and not based on prior experiences or emotions that are triggered within us.

It is only after we have connected and empathised that we can redirect our children's behaviour or share wisdom and insights that might help.

We’re not always going to get it right. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve lost my temper, allowed my shame to get in the way and threw empathy completely out the window.

However, the more we practise this, the more we integrate it into our lives, the more it will become our natural way of being. We’re building a foundation for a lifetime of love and greater happiness within ourselves and our family. As a result, our children will be more compassionate and empathetic, not only now, but into adulthood.

Practical activities to teach children empathy

"I believe that most people have an innate desire to see good in the world. Superhero stories bring to the surface a desire for a world where people are saved, rescued and freed from evil (the villains) through a saviour figure," says Collett. "In superhero stories, we know that evil is always present, but we also know that it will not prevail in the end. The superhero also gives us someone to aspire to be.

"Dr Robin Rosenberg is an American author and psychologist who researches the psychology behind our love of superheroes. She finds that superhero stories fuel our imaginations to look for opportunities to become the best versions of ourselves. They inspire us to 'engage in pro-social behaviour; that is, actions that benefit others and may involve some type of sacrifice—of time, energy or other variables'."

According to Collett, there are some things parents can encourage their "everyday superheroes" to do to nurture compassion and empathy:

  • Look for everyday opportunities to reach out to others: A smile, opening a door, giving up a seat, letting someone else go to the front of the line, pulling in a neighbour’s bin . . .
  • Choose kind actions towards a peer others are excluding, teasing or stereotyping.
  • Find social justice groups that you can support. Those who fight for justice for the poor, educate children or support women in poor communities.

FREE PRINTABLE: Feelings word list

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