Talking to kids about cultivating empathy

Empathy is a useful way to motivate children to reach that parenting holy grail: doing what they are told without a bribe

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News of the volcano-triggered tsunami that hit Indonesia this week, reminded me of the time when my 8-year-old daughter was moved to tears while listening to the early morning news on the way to school. At the time, the death toll from the Sulawesi earthquake and tsunami on September 28 had risen to more than 1,500 people, and a woman was explaining how her two children, playing just out of sight, had been swept away. Her anguish was palpable, and my daughter was quickly overwhelmed by the mother's grief; her younger sister, meanwhile, calmly stared at the traffic out of the window.

Broadly speaking, empathy is our ability to understand and react to the feelings of someone else and it’s critical to successfully maintaining relationships. Empathy also encourages compassion and, sure enough, that evening after school, my daughter and I researched charities working in the relief effort in Indonesia to see what we could do to help. My youngest daughter talked about her maths exam and, again, I wondered at the difference between their responses. But is there a “right” amount of empathy? And how should parents cultivate it?

It’s about thoughts and feelings

Empathy has been widely studied in an effort to explain what makes people help – or fail to help – others in different situations. Social psychologists distinguish between two types of empathy: emotional and cognitive. The former occurs when the brain’s mirror neurons mimic the same ­emotion as someone else; you feel distress in response to the situation of another person and are driven to show compassion. Cognitive empathy is understanding rather than sharing another’s feelings. Some, perhaps like my eldest daughter, appear to be born with higher levels of emotional empathy, but most children learn it as they mature.

Reading faces

Babies begins to empathise by watching their mother’s face and associating her smiles with happiness. As children grow, they continue to observe others and learn to recognise how our faces reflect our emotions. Parents and carers can help kids tune in to how other people are feeling by talking about their own emotions (in good times and bad), and giving kids a nuanced vocabulary with which to express their own feelings. Asking open questions in response to ­feelings allows children to analyse and ­empathise, rather than simply being told someone is happy, sad or angry, for example.

Thinking it over

Don't get carried away waxing lyrical about feelings and forget to probe whether kids understand how someone is feeling. A study published in the journal Psychological Science in April last year found that people tend to overestimate their ability to read people's faces, and cognitive empathy – trying to understand what someone is going through – is actually more reliable in helping us connect with others. To foster this, when reading together at bedtime, talk about why a character in a book is behaving a certain way and what that might say about how the character is feeling.

Weave empathy into family life

Children learn by copying adult behaviour, and using empathy to communicate yourself is a great way to introduce its importance to your kids. Empathy is also a really useful way to motivate them to reach that parenting holy grail: doing what they are told without a bribe. In How To Talk So Kids Will Listen And Listen So Kids Will Talk, authors Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish advise parents to tell a child how their actions make them feel in order to better explain why they would like the child to change his/her behaviour. For example: "I'm very upset with the way that you are talking to me right now. I don't like the way that you are talking to me and I don't like the way that I am talking to you. I'm going to my bedroom now and closing the door. I need some time to cool down." This works better as a strategy than simply shouting commands or telling the child that he/she is wrong, the authors suggest. It also shows emotion in action and invites understanding: the two elements of empathy.

‘Put yourself in their shoes’

This is a useful phrase for helping kids to visualise cognitive empathy, but it's also a useful reminder for mums and dads. When was the last time that you put yourself in your children's shoes and took a moment to imagine how they are feeling? Remind yourself what the world looks like from someone who might be shorter than the height of a doorknob before you stand over him/her with a lifetime of advice or in a fit of anger.


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