There’s no rulebook when it comes to parenting. Raising kids can be complex and draining, but more than anything, it’s incredibly rewarding. We want the best for our kids. We want them to grow up to be successful and productive members of society, but we also would like to acknowledge that they’re compassionate and promote empathy. So, how do you raise an empathetic child? There are many ways to do this.
Show your child that you care and have compassion for others. When you see a homeless person, ask them if they need some food, and give if you can. When a friend isn’t feeling well or looks sad, ask them in front of your children, what’s wrong, and if you can, help. It’s vital to model empathy in front of your children so that they can know what it looks like. It can be as simple as giving a friend or family member a hug when they’re upset.
In the same vein as modeling empathetic behavior, if your child is angry, sad, scared, or frustrated, it’s important to let them feel those strong feelings. Validate the fact that they’re having a strong feeling and tell them that you understand how they feel. Ask them if they can talk about it and show them that you care -- genuinely. When you show that you care what your kid is experiencing, they’ll feel that and want to share more and more.
When your child expresses themselves to you, shares their artwork, or talks about their day, or their feelings, listen to them. Show the act of listening by asking questions about what they told you or offering compassionate advice if they ask for it. Listening is important in the first place so that you can understand what’s going on inside for your child, support them, and make sure that their emotional needs are met.
As a parent, you’re allowed to have feelings. Share your experience and how you feel with your children. If you show them how, they’ll have empathy for you, too. Empathy is something that needs to be practiced and putting yourself in other people’s shoes doesn’t come intuitively for everyone. Remember that you can ask for the empathy that you need as well and that if you ever need additional support in your life, it’s important to receive it.
Some people benefit from going to family therapy, where each person has an opportunity to talk about their own feelings. That’s one way to learn empathy in an environment where a therapist has the opportunity to navigate the point of view of each family member. Family therapy can be helpful for families in crisis or families that are simply going through a transition in their lives. It’s a great place for everyone to have a spot to express how they feel.
Part of allowing your kids to express their feelings is not judging them. Everyone has the right to their feelings, and everyone’s feelings are valid. Listening to your child’s feelings, validating them, and allowing them to have the space to express those emotions without judging them is important. You may not understand why your kid feels the way that they do, but they have the right to experience whatever emotions they’re experiencing. Don’t shame or scold them for having feelings because it’ll make them shut down and stop wanting to express their feelings to you.
Empathy is a learned skill, and it’s okay if you’re struggling to understand or teach it. Children model after their parents, and you can show your kids how to be compassionate and empathetic if you learn it first. If you’re having trouble teaching your child empathy, you can talk about this with a licensed professional. Whether you talk to a therapist in person or online, there’s always a way to work through parenting issues with the help of a mental health professional.