How to teach your child empathy

Empathy in child

As the world is mourning and discussing the terrorist attack that happened in two Mosque’s on Friday 15th March in Christchurch, New Zealand, where fifty people were massacred and fifty injured by an Australian right-wing extremist male, I couldn’t help but ask the question:

“How do I raise my boys to be empathetic, compassionate and have love for all?”

Being the mother of two white Australian boys from a middle class background, I am fully aware of the privilege and the kind of world my sons will grow up in. I am also fully aware of my responsibility to raise them to be empathetic, kind and compassionate towards ALL – regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, gender, sex, socio-economic status and the list goes on.

The last thing this world needs is more hate filled, hurting and angry men (and women).   

I truly believe that by raising children with the ability to empathize is key in creating a kinder, more compassionate and loving world.

So, how do we do that?

I turned to the experts on this topic – Dr Brene Brown, a leading researcher in shame and empathy and author of ‘Dare to Lead’; and Dr Daniel J. Siegel and Dr Tina Payne Bryson, co-authors of ‘No-Drama Discipline’. I’ve combined their research into five steps to help us create empathy in our children (as it’s a taught skill).

Step 1. Connection

When a child is upset, hurt, having a meltdown, confused, or frustrated the quickest way to display empathy is through connection. That’s because when a child is angry or having a ‘meltdown’, they’re using the lower part of the brain, which is responsible for the flight, fright or freeze response. When this part of the brain is activated, the upper part of the brain known as the frontal lobe which is responsible for empathy, logic and reason, cannot work at the same time. Therefore, trying to reason, argue, yell or lecture your child while he is in this state WILL NOT WORK! The quickest way to move him from the lower part of the brain to the upper part of the brain is through connection. This usually starts with touch and being at your child’s level, or simply looking them in the eye with love and compassion.

Step 2. Validation

Validating your child’s feelings requires taking on the perspective of your child. Now it’s impossible to see things completely from their perspective, but what we can do is see their perspective as truth. This mean we become the learner. We can make comments like “That must have hurt.” “You’re having big emotions right now”, or if they’re older “I can see you’re upset by this and it’s really sad.” Validating and naming their feelings will help them to process what they’re feeling and tap into that source. Then we have to listen. If we can’t be learners of what our children are experiencing then we can’t be empathetic, and they learn best from our actions.

Step 3. Be non-judgmental

According to Brene Brown in her book ‘Dare to Lead’, we judge others in areas in which we are most susceptible to shame, and we judge people who are doing worse than we are in those areas. For example, if you find yourself judging others for the way they look, then perhaps it’s because you judge yourself based on your looks, and that’s something you might want to address.

When we judge others in front of our children, then they listen and learn from our words and actions. And the judgement of others leaves us feeling shame, and when we feel shame, we tend to hurt others. Our children see this, even if we’re not aware. They’re very perceptive to our judgement and shame.

Likewise, when our children are feeling judged, which can lead to shame, they will judge and hurt others who trigger their shame. And here’s the real kicker:

Our children will trigger our shame if we see them exhibit a characteristic that we judge ourselves for or feel shame about because we haven’t dealt with it.

Have you ever seen your child get really angry and lose his temper over a small situation and you feel ashamed, embarrassed, and angry, so you don’t respond to your child in the way you would like? We can be intolerant towards our children when we see them demonstrate the very thing that we feel judgement and shame about in our lives.

To stay out of judgement requires us being aware of where we are most vulnerable to feeling shame. This requires US to build a strong self-worth and grounded confidence in who we are, because the more we build on that, the more connected we are to ourselves, the less we will judge others, including our children. 

Step 4. Language the emotion

The more emotions we recognise and can language within ourselves, the more we can recognise our children’s emotions. This teaches them to recognise these emotions within themselves and others. We cannot process an emotion if we can’t identify, name and talk about it. By providing language around that emotion we’re extending our children’s emotional literacy and therefore improving their ability to empathize.

An example of this for a toddler could be: “Are you feeling scared right now?” If you have a primary or secondary school age child, you might say: “I’m sorry about the fight you had with your friend. That sucks and must be really upsetting. Want to talk about it?” Or, “I can see you’re frustrated about that homework assignment. I’m ready to listen”, or “What I hear you saying is…”.

We might get what they’re feeling wrong. In fact, sometimes we will. And that’s ok. So long as we show up from a place of love and remain curious, we can always try again and keep checking in.

NOTE: As parents we tend to over-talk when wanting to redirect or teach our children. Often, using fewer words equals greater impact. Listen more than you talk. Talk to validate their feelings, and empathise, then listen.

Step 5. Pay attention to what you and your child are feeling

The biggest mistake we can make when empathizing with someone is to make their feelings about us. Be mindful of what feelings are being brought up in you, your body language, and don’t over-identify with what they’re feeling. Remember, it can trigger us, and we don’t want that trigger to impact how we connect, empathize and redirect.

It’s so important that we address the situation before us when being empathetic, not based on prior experiences or emotions that are triggered within us. That’s why mindfulness is so important, and there are many techniques available to us to help us with that (please contact me if you’d like to know more about this).

In summary, we teach our children empathy by:

Taking the perspective of the other person, which means connecting with them on their level and becoming the listener, not the person who knows. It requires staying out of judgement and remaining calm by trying to understand what emotion they’re feeling, then name it and express our understanding of that emotion. Then, if necessary, and only after we have connected and empathized, can we can redirect their behaviour or share wisdom and insights that might help.

We’re not always going to get it right. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve lost my temper, allowed my shame to get in the way, and empathy completely went out the window.

However, the more we practice this, the more we integrate it into our lives, the more it will become our natural way of being, and we’re building a foundation for a lifetime of love and greater happiness within ourselves and our family. And as a result, our children will be more compassionate, and empathetic, not only now, but into adulthood.



* If you’d like support with developing skills of empathy, learning how to recognise your triggers and move through shame, or ways to be more mindful, please contact me. I’m here to support you.