Parents often come into the office and they ask what they can do to contribute to their child’s good mental health. When we dissect the question and make it more specific what they really are asking is “how can I help my child develop emotionally into a well-adjusted, happy child?”
I unequivocally tell them that they need to help their child to develop empathy.
Empathy is that ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and understand how they see the world. It is a skill that typically is not inherent but needs to be taught through role modeling and gentle inquiry. When children are small they usually learn empathy when their parents check in with them and ask them questions that encourage them to put themselves in another person’s shoes. Examples of these type of questions might include “How did your friend Tommy feel when he flunked the quiz?” Or, “Tell me why Sally was so upset that she did not get invited to the birthday party.” Parents are instrumental in helping children look at other children’s feelings by identifying questions that clarify how the other person may feel.
Parents can also teach their children empathy by sharing their own feelings and thoughts. I know that I may sound like a broken letter in the columns that I write, but you as your child’s parent, happen to be the single most influential catalyst for a teachable moment. The key is to do it in a way that demonstrates an approach that may work and not a command that is autocratic in nature.
When children divulge that they have a friend who is involved in certain situations, it may be necessary for the parents to share what they are thinking in a nonjudgmental and neutral way. Mom or Dad can then share how they feel about the situation and role model their thoughts and concerns. And again, inquiring what their children feels, believes and thinks about his situation will help the child to identify how they formulated the situation and what they intend to do about it! Empathy fuels connection. Children who show empathy are much more likely to have better friends who also gravitate towards wanting to understand their friend’s perspectives. Empathy is about being able to understand the inner workings of the other person. It is a wonderful tool to teach children kindness and leadership. Presently we seem to live in a society that is very divisive. “It’s us versus them.” When we view the world in such an alienating or estranged way, it negates the importance of how somebody else feels.
Finding examples that helps your child see the opposite of what he or she may be seeing on the news, in politics, or on television shows depicts one way to view a situation. You, as the parent, can encourage your child to see several points of view.
Remember movies and television our wonderful tools to begin to dialogue with your child what they are thinking, feeling, and believing that they are witnessing. When you share your feelings with your child you’re giving your child a different point of view. Parents want to teach good social skills that encourage seeing situations from a variety of ways. You own the power to make a difference in how your child relates to the world!
You are teaching your child to be a kind, compassionate, and an understanding person who can see things from another’s point of view!