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Six Ways to Promote Empathy in Children

By Helene Titelbaum, LICSW
Pediatric Integrated Behavioral Health Clinician
There’s no doubt that we live in an increasingly self-centered age. Whether attention-seeking celebrities or friends and family addicted to digital over-sharing, it’s hard not to notice that the environment our children are growing up in has changed. Many people believe this change in our culture has made it more difficult than ever to raise children who are empathetic and generous to others. As a parent, it’s important not to let your children be detrimentally affected by the societal messages around them. Below are some suggestions that can help your children grow into caring, empathetic and altruistic adults – even in the age of the “selfie.”
1. Let them learn from you
Children learn from those around them. One of the best ways to foster empathy in your children is to treat your friends, acquaintances and colleagues with kindness, compassion, and gratitude. Children with adult role models that demonstrate sensitivity and greater awareness of the circumstances of those around them will better attune to these situations in the moment for themselves.

2. Realize mistakes happen
It’s not realistic for your kids to be friends with everyone or never say something mean. That’s why you should remind your children that it’s possible to be a good person and still make mistakes. Mistakes are opportunities to practice and learn something new. They are also teachable moments. Let your child know that even if you don’t like someone it’s important to be respectful, polite, and civil to everyone. Children will go through many friendships as they grow and change over the years. Always praise them for being considerate and not burning bridges with others.

3. Avoid mean-spirited situations
Most experts believe that being in a “mean” environment can influence and alter human behavior. This can happen to adults as well as children. To promote positive social behavior, schools and other institutions need to address problems when they arise. Sadly, poor behaviors such as gossiping, jockeying for power, and bullying are prevalent in more situations than we would like. Parents should not hesitate to contact their child’s school or organization if they believe their child is feeling stressed by a mean-spirited or toxic environment.

4. Highlight giving back
Kids these days often grow up in a bubble. Getting your children to understand how others live outside of the environment they see every day can heighten their ability to empathize with others, including those who feel like outsiders. Volunteer activities inside and outside the community are a good way to accomplish this.

5. Encourage them to read
One of the great benefits of reading is that it can help children imagine themselves in other people’s lives. Caring for the plight of a character in a novel or a real-life person in a biography can help children to develop compassion and feelings for others who are unlike them.

6. Promote discussion and “teachable” moments
When your child does something wrong, like bullying or being insensitive to others, don’t browbeat them. Help your child consider how what they may have said or done led the other person to feel. Coach them to recognize what that feeling may be like if they were in the other person’s shoes. Invite them to consider if there is an option to make amends or pay it forward.  Open up a discussion and try to teach them that their actions can often have long-term consequences. Let them know that you think it’s important for them to value others, even those who are unlike them.

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