Give the Gift of Empathy

This busy and joyful season is a time with much focus on giving- and it is a great time to encourage empathy. A Time magazine article on bullying called "How Not to Raise a Bully," stated, "Increasingly neuroscientists, psychologists, and educators believe that bullying and other kids of violence can indeed be reduced by encouraging empathy at an early age."

Empathy is understanding, respecting and responding to another person's pain or difficulty.

Empathy is other-centered, thinking about and responding to what others may be feeling or experiencing, and that's why the holiday season can be a great time to grow empathy in our children.

In terms of bullying prevention, empathy works in two ways. First, it keeps children from hurting each other, be that physically or emotionally, as they consider how their actions will affect the other. Secondly, empathy moves children who may see or hear bullying happening to take action. "Bystanders" who witness bullying can respond with empathy to the person being hurt by being an "up-stander" to tell the one bullying to stop and to tell an adult who can help.

Empathy is seeing, caring and acting on another's hard or hurt.

Children need empathy taught to them.Children are by nature self-centered and need intentionally instructed to think of others. They can be taught to understand the three-part definition of empathy- identifying a need, compassionately reacting to that need, and then moving to action in response of that need. In an article from the Peaceful Playgrounds Foundation, called "Bullying Prevention: Is Empathy the Key?" four signs are given that children lack empathy.

  • Poor at reading visual cues regarding emotion (happy, sad, angry, etc.)

  • Difficulty "relating" to others

  • Difficulty being supportive of others

  • Difficulty understanding how others might "feel".

To teach empathy, we can work with children on developing these social and relational abilities. A great way to do that is simply to ask questions:

1. For reading visual emotional cues ask:

How does that person look like they're feeling? What does their face show you about how they're feeling on the inside? Find a chart that shows lots of faces with lots of feelings and practice identifying the feelings.

2. For relating to others ask:

What do you think it would feel like to be in their shoes? If that happened to you, how do you think you would feel? Have you ever had anything similar happen in your life? Write a story about that person and describe their actions and feelings.

3. For supporting others:

How can we help this person? What would be a way you could help this person with their problem? Design a service project that helps another person or family in need.

4. For understanding how others feel:

What do you think this person may be thinking? How do you think they might be feeling? Can you think of 2 or 3 "feeling" words to describe their situation? Again use an emotions chart to discuss many emotions beyond just happy and sad.

Children need empathy modeled for them.

We know with children "more is caught than taught." They are learning from our example as we respond to different situations in our homes and schools. If we learn that our neighbors lost their dear grandmother, we can demonstrate seeing the need, caring about that need, and then acting in response to that need by taking a meal, or a card or a tray of cookies. Do they see us stopping to respond to needs- or are we always rushing by needs? As you are showing empathy and compassion for others, talk about it intentionally so they are learning as you go.

Children need empathy shown to them.

As we say in our parent programs, "being a kid today is hard (especially in middle school!)." Teachers and parents can have an empathetic response with an approach of "I know it's hard, and I'm here to help." Children and teens put so much pressure on themselves added to pressure from school and activities. As the adults in their lives who love and care for them, we have to ask ourselves honestly, "Am I helping with that load of pressure? Or am I adding more to it?" A compassionate adult is able to connect relationally to a child in a way that affords great protection from many unhealthy choices. When children are connected to teachers and parents, they are protected. Their needs to unconditional love and acceptance are met at home and in school, and they are less likely to "go looking for love in all the wrong places."

As you "hustle and bustle" this year, will you consider giving the gift of empathy to your children and those around you? It's a gift that will help them bully and be bullied less and stand up for others more. It's a gift that will draw them closer to you and keep them safer with you. And that indeed makes for happy holidays!

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