Suggestions for Parents & Families: Developing Empathic Children

  • Label feelings in order for your child to develop an emotional vocabulary, promoting an understanding of self-experience, as well as “other” experience.
  • Another way to teach your child to understand and define their emotions is to have a “feeling of the week.” Each week, put up on the refrigerator or bulletin board a picture of someone experiencing a basic emotion — sadness, happiness, surprise, anger. Talk with your child about times when he felt each of these emotions.
  • Teach nonverbal cues. At the playground or park, find a quiet place where you and your child can sit and discreetly observe others. Play a game of guessing what other people are feeling, and explain the specific reasons for your own guesses: “See that man? He’s walking really quickly and his shoulders are hunched, and he’s making a mean face. I think he’s mad about something.”
  • Give them books that promote compassionate behavior. Keep in mind, though, that kids — especially teenagers — don’t like characters who are ‘goody-two-shoes,’ so look for books about ‘ordinary’ characters who perform acts of caring and concern.
  • A study at the National Institute of Mental Health found that children who see kindness on television tend to imitate it. For this reason, you may want to limit their viewing of violent programs and encourage them to watch shows that promote ideas about caring and helping.
  • Find out about the movies your children want to see: are they excessively violent, do they glamorize criminals or people who ‘get ahead’ at the expense of others, do they glorify violence to people or animals? While you can’t shield your children from everything, a little discussion can go a long way. Ask them to think about what they saw and to consider other approaches the characters might have taken.
  • Educate your children about famous altruists. Local museums can provide an inexpensive and enjoyable way to do this, as can television specials and books. Talk to them who they admire, and why.
  • Offer praise and encouragement when you witness your child perform an act of kindness and sensitivity. Likewise, when you catch your child doing something thoughtless and cruel, correct their behavior immediately, speaking firmly and honestly, keeping your focus on the act itself.
  • Not everyone has time to devote to volunteer work or money to donate to all causes, but there are small acts of caring that can be a part of your family’s life. Acts such as doing a favor for a neighbor, taking-in a stray animal, a kind word to a person whose is homeless, standing-up for a bullied kid; are acts of compassion that your child can observe or take part in.
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