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.