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How to help children understand and embrace empathy

Being able to walk in someone else’s shoes, even for a moment, is a powerful human quality. How can parents ensure their children understand and embrace empathy? Our experts have some ideas…

NEWS 27 Sept 2023

For children, empathy can be as simple as comforting a friend who scrapes their knee in the playground, or listening actively as they share their sadness when their pet rabbit dies.

In later years, friends might demonstrate empathy by consoling each other when they miss out on a job opportunity, when they don’t get an exam result or university offer they were hoping for, or after a relationship breakdown.

Whatever the situation, demonstrating empathy is a valuable human trait and, guided by parents/guardians, family and schools, it’s a trait that children can begin to develop from their earliest years.

“There are two key elements of empathy. The first is being able to understand someone else’s feelings – to identify how they feel in that moment and to see the situation from their perspective. The second part is to share that feeling with them,” says Henry Bell, Haileybury Senior School psychologist.

“I think nature and nurture play a role in empathy and it’s a skill that we can build, nurture, practice and reinforce at any stage of life”

So how can families help their children, of any age, learn to value and express empathy? We asked our top experts for their ideas.

  • Use books and stories as a starting point: For younger children, events in stories can be used to introduce the idea of the importance of understanding other people’s feelings and showing compassion. Books, movies and cartoons are all opportunities to discuss what happens to a character, how they might feel and what can be said or done to help them feel better, suggests Henry.
  • Teach children the power of quality conversations: Teach children how to ask open-ended questions, to actively listen to a response and use their tone of voice appropriately when showing empathy. They can also be shown how to pick up on non-verbal cues of the other person (Mark Harrop, Head of Haileybury Newlands campus)
  • Let them know when they’ve been empathetic – and when they haven’t: When your child shows emotional understanding or provides support, acknowledge that and let them know their actions made the other person feel better.
“If your child doesn’t show empathy in a certain situation, that may not be the right time to discuss it. Save it for a talk later that day and then tell your child what you saw, ask them how they responded to the situation and what they may have been able to do differently”
Diane Furusho, Deputy Principal Student Wellbeing Haileybury
  • Use everyday learning opportunities: Make the most of everyday situations and conversations to talk about different feelings and perspectives that people may have about various issues.

“Reinforce the positives that come with kindness, compassion and understanding and help children understand that if they have empathy, they will have more friends, less conflict, healthier relationships and they’ll be more open-minded and feel good about themselves,” says Mark.

  • Discuss how the digital world impacts empathy: Physical distance and the anonymity of the digital world can make it harder to understand the impact of something we might post or share on another person.

“Help your children understand that the same rules apply online as they do face-to-face. It’s something as adults we need to remember, too. When something is typed things can more easily be misconstrued because we don’t have the emotional cues that come with facial expressions and body posture,” says Henry.

  • Boost your own empathy levels: As with many qualities that we want to instil in our children, it often starts with positive role models. So make sure your children see you understanding, actively listening and encouraging people around you when they are going through a challenging time.

“Watch your own interactions with everyone – friends, teachers, family and the person at the supermarket checkout – and demonstrate kindness, care and respect,” says Henry. “We all slip up at times and you can use those moments and admit to your child that you weren’t empathetic and what you could have done better.”

Helping children of all ages to understand what empathy is, and how to express it, is something that every parent and carer can start working on today. It doesn’t have to be complicated. Simple everyday conversations and situations can all provide opportunities to showcase empathy and to appreciate what a valuable quality is.

Wellbeing webinar

Watch our recent myWellbeing webinar on 'How to help children understand and embrace empathy'

Hosted by Diane Furusho Deputy Principal Student Wellbeing, Mark Harrop Head of Newlands and Henry Bell Haileybury Psychologist, the panel shed light on the invaluable topic of nurturing emotional intelligence in children.

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