Teaching Children Caring Emotions

An earlier article described four caring emotions, empathy, sympathy, pity, and compassion. It discussed the nature of each and encouraged parents to help their children develop the first two and last of these. This article will explain the origins of these emotions and how they can be nurtured. By understanding the development of these caring emotions, parents can be better equipped to foster in their children concern for others and a desire to help.

Foundations for Caring: Attachment

Emotional responsiveness to another person’s suffering occurs early in life. Even babies readily become perturbed when near other infants who are in distress. These initial reactions aren’t in themselves mature caring, but they can serve as the ground on which mature caring is built. One of the building blocks for mature caring is forming a healthy attachment to others.

The most important relationship a child has during the first few years of life is with her caregivers. Children are predisposed to bond to their caregivers, and, if the caregiver is affectionate and consistent, a secure attachment to the caregiver will form. Securely attached children are trusting of others and have a sense of self-worth. They aren’t overly preoccupied with their own emotional reactions and are free to attend more closely to the emotions of others. Not surprisingly, research has found secure attachment to be associated with empathy. In contrast, avoidant attachment, resulting from an impaired relationship with caregivers leading to mistrust of others and efforts to remain distant from them, is associated with a relative lack of empathy. 

How can parents help children become securely attached? By being available, caring, and consistent. Attend to and readily meet the child’s needs, including needs for affection and comfort when distressed. Allow the child to explore his world; securely attached children use parents as a stable base from which they can venture out to learn and to which they can return. Take delight in who they are, expressing in every way possible their value to you. 

How might such parenting foster empathy and related feelings? Having an available and consistent parent alleviates uncertainty and frees the child to attend to the world around her, including awareness of others and their feelings. Caregivers who recognize and accept the child’s feelings give the message that feelings are important. Providing the child with comfort gives him a model to follow for responding warmly to the needs of others. When caregivers serve as a secure base, the child can take more risks even in situations that are disturbing, such as engaging with rather than avoiding peers experiencing discomfort. Being valued helps children to value others in turn, including others who are in need of caring.

Foundations for Caring: Perspective-Taking

Having secure attachment helps children attend to the distress of others, but such sensitivity to distress doesn’t by itself constitute mature empathy or sympathy. That requires another element, namely the ability to see the world from another person’s perspective. Such perspective-taking is a fairly complex mental ability that develops over the course of childhood. For example, a young child who sees a peer become distressed when the peer’s parent leaves may not understand the reaction because the observing child’s parent is still present. With age comes the realization that what matters to the sobbing peer is not the presence of the observer’s own parent but the absence of the peer’s parent. The child has understood the distress from the peer’s perspective. 

Taking another’s viewpoint isn’t innate; we learn that skill through many years of experience and parental guidance. Such taking the other person’s perspective is a Christian practice. As Fleming Rutledge puts it in The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ, “Trying to understand someone else’s predicament lies at the very heart of what it means to be a Christian.”

The role parents play

How can parents help children learn how to take the perspective of others? Modeling perspective-taking is particularly helpful here. Show the child that you understand their perspective—you get why they are disappointed about not getting to play with a friend, angry when someone breaks their favorite toy, or worried about a sick grandparent. When the child observes you interacting with others, take time afterwards to discuss what that person might be thinking or feeling. 

Use feeling words regularly, so that the child learns about lots of emotions. In conversations with the child, ask questions to help her practice perspective taking, e.g. “How do you think Joey feels about having a new sister?” When the child has conflicts with others, help him understand how the other person might think or feel about what happened. Harvard University’s Making Caring Common offers several useful resources for assisting parents in cultivating empathy development in children.

The Ultimate Example

Christ perfectly exemplifies the two foundations for caring described above. Human parents may be “good enough” figures with whom their children can form healthy attachments, but they fall short of the consistent and complete caring that Christ received from his heavenly Father, as manifested, for example, at the time of his baptism (Luke 3:21,22). As a result, Christ abided fully in his Father’s love (John 15:10). And Christ was always quick to understand the perspective of those he encountered. Here’s one of many examples:

“Jesus called his disciples to him and said, ‘I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat. I do not want to send them away hungry, or they may collapse on the way’” (Matt. 15:32, NIV).

This, then, provides the ideal model for us to follow. We are to be affectionate and consistent parental figures in our children’s lives, imitating as best we can what Christ’s Father in heaven provided for him. We are to take the perspective of those we encounter, imitating as best we can Christ’s unparalleled ability to intuit the thoughts and feelings of those around him. Serving as a secure base and modeling perspective-taking for our children, we will enable them to develop qualities of empathy, sympathy, and compassion.

About the author — Dr. Robert Ritzema

Bob Ritzema is a clinical psychologist, having received his doctorate from Kent State University. He has worked for over 25 years as a psychotherapist and more than 10 years as a college professor. He retired from Methodist University in 2012 to return to his hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan in order to assist his parents. He currently works part-time at Psychology Associates of Grand Rapids and worships at Monroe Community Church. He has two sons and three grandchildren.

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