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“I Understand”- Why Empathy is so important

One of the most important social skills a child can learn is empathy. Confident children and teens with a well developed characteristic of empathy are able to understand and connect with others authentically and effectively. Engaging positively with others is critical for our happiness and wellbeing, which is why it is such a vital skill and characteristic to teach our children.

We know that empathy can be a natural predisposed and inherited characteristic, as children as young as 12 months are found to display signs of empathy by responding to others in distress. However it appears that empathy is primarily learnt from our caregivers, as well as the influence of social and cultural factors.

So what is Empathy, and how can we teach our children to develop this important characteristic of confidence?

Empathy is the ability to sense and understand others people’s feelings and emotions and to respond appropriately. It is also a core characteristic of Emotional Intelligence, which is the ability to understand and manage your own emotions as well as the emotions of others.

There are 3 different kinds of empathy

1. Cognitive

Cognitive empathy is the ability to understand how the other person might be feeling based on the reaction you are observing. Its about knowing and understanding from a rational or intellectual perspective.

Some ways you can help children to develop this type of empathy is to ask them to imagine how the other person is feeling by saying “ How do you think they are feeling?” or “Why do you think they might be responding like that?”

Cognitive empathy focusses on the logical and rational approach to understanding another person’s emotions and feelings, but can also appear detached and cold if used to excess and not combined with the other forms of empathy. It’s important not to use logic to point out solutions or obvious facts about the situation, but rather to simply recognise the emotion that the other person may be experiencing.

2. Emotional

Our ability to connect with someone by deeply ‘feeling their pain’, is emotional empathy, and is often a deep seated, automatic gut reaction to seeing someone ( particularly someone we care about) in distress. This type of empathy can be both a positive way to connect with someone, but can also be challenging if we are unable to effectively manage our own emotional response.

In order to teach children emotional empathy, it is important to ensure they are firstly able to express a full range of their own emotions, so they are then able to accurately observe these in others. Asking children to imagine themselves in a similar situation “ How do you think you would feel if that happened to you?” is a way of helping them to develop emotional empathy.

3. Compassionate

Compassionate empathy is about using appropriate action in a situation too assist someone else who may be struggling and who requires assistance. While cognitive empathy helps us to understand the situation, and emotional empathy enables us to feel the emotion of the other person, compassionate empathy allows us to take a step back and work out how we can actively assist.

We can teach children compassionate empathy by asking them “ What do you think you could do to help your friend feel better?”

Some ways to help develop your child’s empathy.

  • Show them how to recognise, understand and express their own emotions, rather then dismissing or trying to minimise them. When children are more open and free to express their own emotions, they are more likely to recognise them in others.

  • Teach them emotional self-regulation as studies show that children who are better at regulating their emotions tend to show greater empathy with others.

  • Rolemodel empathic behaviours, both with your children and others, so your children can observe empathy in action.

  • Help them understand the importance of empathy and the need to connect emotionally with others for our own wellbeing and happiness. Explain how good it makes you feel to give someone a present, and to see the impact your kindness has on others.

  • Teach them how to develop perspective by asking them to try to see the other person’s side of a situation, particularly if the other person has upset them.

  • Help your children discover what they have in common with others, particularly with people who are very different from them.

  • Show them how to ‘read’ others by focusing on facial expressions, body language and tone of voice to appropriately identify emotions and feelings.

Empathy is a powerful skill that helps can help children to understand others and communicate their ideas, thoughts and emotions in a way that helps to create positive interactions and connections.

“Empathy is simply listening, holding space, withholding judgement, emotionally connecting, and communicating that incredibly

healing message of ‘you’re not alone,’” Brene Brown

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