Empathy is a complex emotion that is not readily understood by all adults, and is almost impossible for children under a year old to understand.
The ability to put ourselves in the shoes of another person and fully understand their feelings and opinions helps make us fully human.
But recognizable empathy means more than simply being able to name the feeling another person might be having.
- Understanding that the person is a separate, distinct person,
- Understanding that another person has their own thoughts and feelings,
- Being able to recognize and name the feeling another person is experiencing, choosing from the most common emotions,
- Being able to project himself into a situation and anticipate the feeling he would have, and
- Explaining how to comfort the other person or solve the problem that caused a painful emotion or response.
The development of empathy
Children are not born with empathy. At first they are simply demanding beings who must work / cry to have their immediate needs met. Food, change of clothes, a familiar face; they are only aware of their own needs and their own engagement in the world about them.
In most environments, over time, children learn about others and engage with others.
Even without much help or guidance, they develop a modicum of empathy. They know when people around them are experiencing strong emotions, and they can learn to change their patterns to adapt to those strong feelings.
Is their caregiver crying? It is not unusual for children as young as six months old to also cry or offer other mirror emotions. Is an older sibling angry and loud? Babies learn to get away from a situation that has been known to cause them pain.
This is not yet empathy, but these are early vestiges of it.
Over time you can help your child develop empathy. But first they must learn to identify who they are and to see that they are separate from other people.
This happens typically around a child’s second birthday, when they can see two people in a mirror and identify themselves and the other person.
Developing empathy is an important social milestone. A child without empathy will harm others unintentionally, and drive potential friends away. She will find herself isolated at school and in social situations.
Most children need empathy and these social interactions to foster a strong sense of self, and to learn and thrive.
Ways to foster empathy
Now that you understand more about the development of empathy, here are some practices you can put in place. Over time, you can help your child develop a healthy level of empathy that will allow them to develop deep sustained relationships with others as they grow.
Read a book that helps them see and feel others’ feelings. Feelings by Aliki, or The Feelings Book by Todd Parr are two good examples. Here is a longer list.
Listen to and talk about your child’s strongest feelings. Helping them understand emotions as feelings that grow stronger and weaker based on outside events helps them get a better grasp of their own emotions, laying groundwork for understanding the feelings of others.
Use “I” messages. By identifying your own feelings with clear statements, you help your child develop a sense of empathy because he can see that you have different emotions than they do. This is an important first differentiation. Mom from self.
Empathize with your child’s strong emotions. Help them find words for their feelings, and see the small differences. They aren’t angry about everything. Sometimes they are furious, other times they are bothered or upset. Providing precise language helps them better understand their own emotions, giving them a base from which to explore other’s emotions.
Provide suggestions for exemplifying empathy. If you are watching a movie where the protagonist feels a strong emotion, identify it with your words. If there is an experience with someone in person, say if your child tells you a story about something that happened at school, help them think about how to make the situation better. “Did your friend fall and hurt their knee? That has happened to you, what made you feel better? Can you get a bandaid for your friend?
Are you struggling with parenting, and looking for some help? Do your relationships with your family and friends leave you feeling drained and alone? Sakina Issa can help. Select the red button to set up a free, no obligation consultation, and see if working with Sakina might help you better understand and manage the complex relationships in your life. You have everything to gain, and nothing to lose.