Life Skills: Teaching Children Empathy

“Love one another, as I have loved you”

Parents spend much time and energy teaching children social skills for living. We teach them manners, to say “please” and “thank you.” We teach them hygiene, to brush their teeth and wash their hands. We teach them diligence, to do their homework, to do their chores. We teach them skills, to tie their shoes, to drive a car, to dress for a job interview. Throughout their lives, we are modeling and teaching countless techniques as building blocks of life.

A skill everyone needs

Yet there is one skill that is necessary in every phase and every situation in human life, yet parents often overlook it or are unsure of how to teach it. That skill is EMPATHY, or the ability to perceive, understand, and share the feelings of others. It is simply wondering and caring about another's experience. As 1 Corinthians 12:26 describes this skill, if one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. Teaching children empathy results in their increased capacity to see the face of Christ in others. Children who cultivate the skill of empathy are more respectful, thoughtful, and kind. Empathetic children are less likely to bully, and less likely to tolerate bullying behavior in others.

Teaching Emotional Intelligence?

How do we begin to teach this crucial skill? Here are some ideas:

  • Help children label their own emotions. If your child is crying, you might say, “I see you are feeling sad” while offering comfort. Or, if upset, you might say "You seem disappointed." This prepares the way for your child to be able to identify and understand their own and others’ emotions.
  • Make a game out of making exaggerated facial expressions and having them guess what emotion you are feeling. Then have them try it and you guess!
  • Help them identify what they have in common with others. Kids often are curious about differences that they see (like when a friend uses a wheelchair or a stranger dresses differently than they are used to). Acknowledge these differences, and work with them to identify traits that they share (“Yes, she uses a wheelchair to get around. And I notice that she has a rocket ship on her backpack. I wonder if she likes science like you do?”). This helps them see that we share more than divides us as children of God.
  • Model kindness and empathy in your behavior toward others. Children are always observing the adults around them. Let them hear you identify the feelings of others in conversation.
  • When kids recount stories, ask them how they thought people in their stories were feeling. This encourages not only identification, but asking the question in the first place.
  • Run scenarios with them and ask how they think others may feel. You could do this with characters in books, in discussing their day at school, in watching the news, or in any other situation where you are discussing other people.
  • Help them “zoom out” from simply trying to understand the emotions of family and friends. Talk with them about people impacted by persecution, violence, etc. Encourage them to explore their own emotions about these things, then help them to think about the emotions those impacted may experience.

Empathy is an essential skill for living a life that embraces kindness, calls out and stands up to bullies, and connects with others. Through helping children develop capacity to understand and experience others’ emotions, you equip them to join the worthy calling to do justice, love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8, NRSV).

About the author — Jessica Parks, MSW, LCSW

Jessica Parks is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker at Chicago Christian Counseling Center. Jessica is passionate about assisting adolescents in navigating the transitional teenage years, and is experienced in treating teens struggling with self-injury. She also enjoys working with children and adults with profound trauma experiences. She believes that faith and family systems profoundly impact ability to heal, and walks with clients in their journeys toward fostering growth within these systems. Her work as a therapist is as witness to pain, supporter, educator, and collaborator.

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