Is your child oblivious to how his actions affect others?
Have you ever watched your child at the park, or in the schoolyard, and noticed they just don’t seem to connect well with other kids? For some children, this means that they appear not to notice that they’re hogging all the toys, unwilling to share – while the other children look angrily on.
Others don’t notice when another child has hurt themselves. They’ll often walk right on by, even to the point of stepping over the crying child without a look at whom they’re stepping over.
We’re not born knowing how to empathize with others.
Empathy is a basic trait that can be seen in babies just a few months old. When a baby notices the happy look on her mother’s face, and smiles, or notices a frown and looks worried or upset, that is the beginning of empathy.
But while empathy is an important trait, it isn’t inborn. We learn how to be empathetic through the experiences we go through in life. And as we age, we continue to deepen our ability to empathize on an emotional and intellectual level.
If a child can’t empathize with others, they won’t get along with them either.
Your child has numerous opportunities during the day to show empathy. How will Mommy feel if I touch this glass vase? How will my little brother feel if I take his toy away? Your child uses empathy to imagine how others feel, and react appropriately.
If he can’t imagine how others might feel when he does something, or if his friends feel he is too self-absorbed to care about them, he’ll suffer.
You can, however, teach your child to be more empathetic. Here are some tips you can follow in order to help your child learn to be more empathetic:
Encourage your child to help others.
Even a preschooler has many opportunities throughout the day to help others. Each time your child helps another person, draw their attention to how the other person feels now that they’ve helped. For example, let’s say you’d like your child to bring a toy to the baby.
Before you ask him to bring it, remind him of a time when he needed something and someone else helped him. Remind him how he felt when that happened, “Remember how happy you were when Daddy got the ball out from under the couch for you?”
Then when your child brings the baby a toy, say to your child, “Look how happy the baby is! See how he’s smiling? You made him so happy.” This helps your child learn to recognize feelings.
Teach your child to recognize nonverbal body signals.
Part of being empathetic is noticing the subtle nonverbal signals that we give. Teach your child to recognize some basic ones, like body posture, and facial expressions. You can do this with pictures, or demonstrate it yourself.
Strengthen your child’s ability to see cause and effect.
Noticing that mom is angry is one level of empathy. But realizing that mom is unhappy because something happened to make her upset, is a higher level. You can strengthen your child’s ability to see cause and effect by pointing out instances of as they occur throughout the day.
For example, if you’re feeling frustrated because you can’t find your keys, say to your child, “I’m feeling really frustrated right now. Do you know why? Because (add the emphasis by changing your tone of voice) I can’t find my keys!”
When you find your keys, ask your child to guess how you feel. Suggest they look at your face and your body language for cues (be specific). When they correctly guess “happy,” ask them why. If they need help you can give leading answers “because I found my ---“
Understanding cause and effect is the foundation of teaching your child how to problem solve. And a child who can use her empathetic skills to solve problems is one who looks to make the world a better place not just for themselves, but for others as well.