How To Teach Your Kids Empathy, According To A Neuroscientist & Mother Of Four
We want our kids to act compassionately. As parents, we envision a future where our adult child will change the world, help others, and make a difference. We have high hopes. But how do we get there? Neuroscience has good news for parents: Teaching empathy is easy to do and works at any age. There are concrete steps you can take to raise an awesome person. The younger the children, the larger the empathy gains will be. If you're having one of those days when you feel like your child is showing zero empathy, no worries—you can still dig in as a parent. Studies show that the lower the initial empathy levels, the higher the gains after training.
Cultivate the right type of empathy.
There are several kinds of empathy: Emotional empathy is when you feel an emotional pull; cognitive empathy is when you think about how someone might feel. As parents, we want the third type of empathy in our kids—applied empathy. Applied empathy is when we act in a compassionate ways toward someone else. In the real world, compassion is when we learn how to use internal feelings or thoughts to change our relationships and affect our community. We cultivate compassion by practicing it.
Practice makes competence.
Practice of any sort strengthens connections in the brain pathways we use. Luckily, we don't need anything special to do this. In fact, we can enhance empathy skills using everyday situations. Have an extra two minutes? You can teach your child to read emotional cues around them using the ingredients on hand. Pull a situation from a movie you're watching and ask about the characters' emotions. Wonder aloud about what the yelling woman at the drive-through is feeling or thinking. Give names to emotions and raise awareness.
Talking about feelings and thoughts is absolutely not enough though. What's the point of feeling achy for someone or realizing that someone else feels bad without having the tools to actually make a difference in other people's lives? In order to do this, parents also have to foster self-control and creativity. Our kids need these essential life skills to clearly see solutions and to find resolve to fix the problem.
Foster compassion by teaching creativity.
Let's take a look at why creativity is important: A great imagination feeds directly into great empathy skills. Creativity can absolutely be taught to kids, and it's a valuable skill worth much more than the ability to simply paint a lovely picture. We're talking idea generation, problem solving, openness to new ideas, and flexibility. These are fertile ground for the seeds of empathy. Creativity and empathy are so linked that it can be hard to tease them apart, but it's easy to tap into them simultaneously. If you are more creative, you can more easily see things from someone else's point of view. And the inverse is also true: If you have an ill-defined sense of empathy, you are less likely to be creative.
Foster compassion by teaching self-control.
Self-control can be more complicated, but this, too, can be taught as an essential foundation for empathy. Acting compassionately takes self-control. Self-control is required to stop yourself from acting on your gut impulses, like not hitting when someone takes your ball away. If we can see the impact our behavior will have on other people, we can be more empathetic. We need to practice, though. Self-control is like a muscle—exertion in the short term can leave us feeling tired and depleted. But over time, exercising self-control will not only strengthen self-control but also deepen our empathy resources.
Intentionally create space for empathy to work.
You can't force your kid to be empathetic any more than you can force them to be creative. Remember that compassionate acts are rewarding in themselves, so allow them to work their magic with too much commentary. These skills will develop faster in children who choose them as inherently rewarding acts, so it's essential that parents offer instruction and then back off.
Kids need space to both make the decisions and to consider how those decisions make them feel. We can claim space in many different ways: It could be thinking space or some alone time. It could be disconnecting from our normal routine, a timeout, getting off social media, enforcing silence, taking a walk in the woods, or yoga. This space can be created by allowing free play, providing your kids with intentional decision-making opportunities, or encouraging both reflection and mindfulness. There never seems to be enough space in our lives, so you'll need to carve it out for both yourself and your kids.
The skills of empathy, creativity, and self-control are interconnected. Each skill bleeds over into the other skills, so building ability in one area will translate to greater ability in the other two. We can use things we're already doing as parents in a different way to foster not only empathy but also the related skills of creativity and self-control. The most important thing you can do to grow compassionate kids is to intentionally focus on these skills daily in tiny ways.
Erin Clabough, Ph.D., is a Charlottesville, Virginia-based mother of four, who holds a Ph.D. in neuroscience from the University of Virginia. She writes for popular media such as Psychology Today, TODAY Parenting, and other publications, and is the author of Second Nature: How Parents Can Use Neuroscience to Help Kids Develop Empathy, Creativity, and Self-Control. She teaches biology and neuroscience at Hampton-Sydney College and conducts research in developmental brain function and other areas.