Empathy: Why It's Important, Why We Should Nurture It in Our Kids

By: Steve Palmer

One of the most important skills we can teach our kids is empathy. Empathy is the ability to see and value what another person is feeling or experiencing. When we see someone in pain and feel that response in our own gut, that’s empathy. When we see someone crying tears of joy at an important reunion and notice ourselves choking up, that’s empathy. When we see someone struggling with a problem and feel an emotional pull to help, that’s empathy. It’s a core skill for what psychologists call “pro-social” behavior – the actions that are involved in building close relationships, maintaining friendships, and developing strong communities. It appears to be the central reality necessary for developing a conscience, as well. Read more >

Raising empathetic kids might seem like a challenging task, but kids are empathetic by nature! Here’s a little story that illustrates this idea: When we lived in Chicago and my kids were all quite young, my two-year-old son accidentally locked himself in the bathroom. He could not understand our directions through the door about how to turn the latch and got more and more upset. His sisters (then about 4, 6, and 8), as they became aware of the situation, went through a whole gamut of emotions in response. They panicked and screamed, worrying he might never get out. They began to cry (loudly, I must say) in their concern for him. And they began to run about the house trying to figure out what to do – and giving me and mom many pieces of advice about how to rescue him.

Kids are empathetic. They are affected by other people’s feelings and are driven to respond. Learning how to support the development of those feelings in healthy directions is another of the tasks of parenting. And there’s plenty of research to support this idea.

Emotional intelligence has become an increasingly popular idea over the last twenty years. While “IQ” (intelligence quotient) attempts to describe our thinking and reasoning abilities, “EQ” (emotional intelligence quotient) attempts to describe our ability to work with our own and others’ emotions. The importance of these skills for personal, relationship and even work success has become increasingly recognized in the psychological community, and researchers and therapists alike are developing ways of helping folks learn and make use of these skills.

Technically, “emotional intelligence is defined as the ability to perceive and express emotion accurately and adaptively, the ability to understand emotion and emotional knowledge, the ability to use feelings to facilitate thought, and the ability to regulate emotions in oneself and in others” (Salovey & Pizarro, 2002).

One of the most important of the emotional intelligence skills is empathy. When we instinctively tell our kids to “think about how what you did made your sister feel,” we are training our kids in empathy and inviting them to recognize the importance of taking others’ feelings into account. So, what are some ways to help support our kids’ development of empathy, and the ability to respond to others in constructive ways? Here are a few points to consider:

  • Help your kids put words to their emotions. Feelings are complex bio-chemical realities that take place in our whole bodies, but not necessarily involving our logical brain! Naming them can be trickier than we sometimes realize. We have a great many words in our language to try to express the various shadings of sadness, anger or fear. Helping our kids find the right words that express what they’re feeling is a great way for them to come to understand the feelings of others.
  • Feel out loud. Modeling the behavior you want your kids to emulate is one of the best parenting strategies around. Kids are watching us all the time and what we do influences them as much or more than what we say. Share your thoughts and feelings about situations in the family, what friends are going through, what that kid at school your son is complaining about might be feeling, what you see on TV. No need to be heavy-handed or lecture about it. Simply share what the other person may be feeling or going through and how that affects you, makes you consider how to help.
  • Include empathy as part of discipline. Make sure you include conversation about how people are affected by a problem in the creation of the solution. Get kids to consider how their aggrieved sibling might have felt when they got hurt or when someone took their favorite pair of jeans without asking. Show empathy to the perpetrator, too, so they see how this empathy can guide consequences, as well.
  • Reward empathy. When we notice our kids doing the right thing, a reward “out of the blue” can be a powerful way to influence their behavior in the future. Pay attention to when your kids are responding out of empathy, reaching out to help, changing their behavior out of concern for another, and let them know you value and support what they’re doing. Recognition and affirmation are often reward enough, but an occasional ice cream cone won’t hurt!
  • Be patient. None of us is perfectly empathetic all the time, even as adults. To ask kids to put others first or even to be able to have the emotional energy to notice what someone else is feeling when they are upset is asking a lot. As with all things human, progress is slow and accumulates over time as skills (and brains!) develop. Just keep pointing these moments out and modeling the skills the best you can. Our kids will get there. After all, we did, right?

Interested in learning more about E.Q.? Here are some resources for further investigation:

For parents:

  • Elias, M. J., Tobias, S. E. & Friedlander, B. S. (1999). Emotionally intelligent parenting: How to raise a self-disciplined, responsible, socially-skilled child. New York: Three Rivers Press.

For general information about emotional intelligence:

  • Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ. New York: Bantam.
  • Rosenthal, N. E. (2002). The emotional revolution: How the new science of feelings can transform your life. New York: Kensington.
  • Salovey, P., Mayer, J.D., & Caruso, D. (2002). The positive psychology of emotional intelligence. In C.R. Snyder & S.J. Lopez (Eds.), The handbook of positive psychology (pp. 159-171). New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Salovey, P. & Pizarro, D. A. (2002). The value of emotional intelligence. In R. J. Sternberg, J. Lautrey, & T. I. Lubart (Eds.), Models of intelligence: International perspectives (pp. 263-78). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

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Photo credit: xeophin via Flick’r.

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[...] to Steve Palmer, who wrote an article on this topic for Parent Further, a search institute resource for families,“[Empathy is] a core skill for what psychologists call [...]

The Importance of Empathy:
A Significant Feature of the Mindset of Successful People
Part II

In my last column I emphasized that a common characteristic of individuals who are successful as business leaders, teachers, parents, spouses, or healthcare professionals is their ability to be empathic. Empathic people are skilled in placing themselves inside the shoes of another person and seeing the world through that person’s eyes. It is not surprising that Daniel Goleman listed empathy as one of the main components of emotional intelligence. In my activities as a therapist and consultant as well as in my personal life, I have come to believe that empathy is implicated in all of our relationships, impacting on the satisfaction and effectiveness with which we interact with others.

As I noted in my last column, people who are empathic have developed a mindset that asks, “In anything I say or do, am I saying or doing it in a way in which other people will be most responsive to listening to me?” By posing this question, I am not suggesting that we assume the role of amateur psychologist, attempting to analyze every word we utter in every interaction we have (if we did, we are likely to become disorganized, overwhelmed, and paralyzed), but rather that we keep in mind that if we want others to appreciate what we are communicating, if we want others to respond to and work cooperatively with us, then we must consider their perspective and how they perceive us. I know that I attempt to use empathy to guide all aspects of my work, influencing not only what I say, but how I say things, and directing the kinds of questions I ask that will nurture empathy in others. For instance, when I am engaged in marital therapy it is not unusual for me to ask each spouse to describe how he or she feels the other views the marriage, or to ask parents to describe how they think their child sees them, or to ask business leaders how their employees would describe them. These questions have a common purpose, namely, to assess and place the spotlight on empathy.

In my workshops I am frequently asked if empathy can be learned. The question is posed in several forms. Those raising or working with children wonder if there are ways of increasing a child’s capacity to be empathic, especially aware that a lack of empathy can be a risk factor that compromises the formation of friendships and even contributes to some children hurting others. Parents have also wondered whether their own ability to be empathic can be strengthened. In a similar fashion business leaders have asked what is necessary to enhance empathy in themselves and in their employees. While some individuals, such as those with so-called easy temperaments who grow up in homes where empathy is an essential ingredient of family life, will have an easier time developing empathy than others, I believe it is a skill that can be nurtured even in those children and adults who I would describe as having an “empathy deficit.” Before considering what steps we can take to strengthen empathy in ourselves, it may be helpful to examine briefly some of the obstacles that we may face as we take these steps. An increased awareness of these obstacles will lessen their potency and make them easier to manage.

A Lack of Models: If we grew up in a home in which our parents were not empathic, in which our communications were not validated, in which we were told how we should feel or not feel, it is more difficult to learn to take the perspective of another person. While having empathic parents does not guarantee that we will become empathic, it is certainly an important factor. I recall an initial family therapy meeting in which a teenage girl mentioned that she felt very depressed. Her mother responded, “But there’s no reason for you to be depressed. We give you everything you need and we’re a loving family.” While mother’s intention may have been to be reassuring, her failure to acknowledge what her daughter was saying led the daughter to withdraw and become more sullen. If mother had been empathic and validated what her daughter had said (e.g., “I’m glad you could let us know how you feel. Together we can try to figure out what would help you to feel less depressed”), I am certain her daughter would have been more responsive and in addition, would have been exposed to someone demonstrating empathy.
Empathy Is Sacrificed when We Are Upset, Angry, or Disappointed with the Other Person (People): While most individuals consider themselves to be empathic, in fact, it is difficult to be empathic when we are frustrated or angry with others. I have witnessed people who are angry say hurtful things to their children, their spouse, their students, their employees that they would not have said if they were less stressed and frustrated. For example, I was seeing a shy, socially immature seven-year-old boy in therapy who received an invitation to go to a classmate’s birthday party. He was very excited since he typically was not invited to such events. However, the party proved to be a disaster when several of the other boys said to him that he didn’t belong at the party. When his mother came to pick him up, he was seated by himself, looking withdrawn and sad. While his mother was a caring person, when she saw him all alone, her anxiety and frustration about his isolation from peers was aroused and she said to him, “No wonder you don’t have any friends, you always sit by yourself!” The moment these words were uttered she wished she could take them back, especially as she observed her son’s tears. She cried as she described this situation at our next meeting, saying that she couldn’t believe she would say something like this to her son. Her anxiety and disappointment had interfered with her capacity to be empathic and offer her son the support he needed.
I’m Right, You’re Wrong! There are a number of people who have a reflex negative reaction towards anyone who has an opinion different from theirs. They feel threatened when someone questions their point of view, immediately becoming defensive and failing to appreciate the other person’s perspective. Their entire demeanor suggests that they are poised for attack and will not permit alternative views to enter their space. I consulted with one manager who had lost a number of his staff. At first he voiced surprise that so many had quit, believing that he encouraged and welcomed their input. However, what I learned in my consultation was that when an employee voiced concern about how difficult it was to give him feedback since he became angry if the feedback was not totally positive, he confirmed this observation by abruptly telling this employee that the latter had “difficulty with authority.” This manager’s need to be right and his intense defensiveness blinded him from seeing other possible perspectives. I have seen the same dynamic in parent-child relationships as well as teacher-child relationships. It is difficult to be empathic when we are constantly defensive and not willing to listen to others. Collaboration, cooperation, and teamwork are virtually impossible to achieve under such conditions.
Given these obstacles, what is it that we can do to strengthen our ability to be empathic? What follows are some guidelines and exercises. While they may be based on commonsense, they require practice and diligence and sometimes the input or feedback of another person who can offer an objective view. However, I believe that if we can keep these guidelines in focus, we can achieve greater empathy.

Accept that Empathy is a Vital Skill for Successful Relationships: This acceptance typically demands that we must be very clear about what empathy is and is not. Some people confuse being empathic with giving in or not being assertive. Empathy has nothing to do with giving in. One can be empathic and yet disagree with another person. One can be empathic and validate what another person is saying, but have an entirely different view of the situation. For instance, an excellent teacher I knew was accused by one of her students of not being fair when he had to serve detention for insulting other students. He had already been given a warning. Rather than become defensive and recite a litany of examples of things that this student had done to warrant detention, the teacher said, “I know you think I’m not fair and I’m glad you could tell. Since that is how you feel, I think it’s important for us to review what led up to the detention, especially since I would not like to see it happen again and I don’t want you to think I’m not being fair.” By first validating the student’s perception, the teacher created a climate in which this student was less defensive and more open to listening to the teacher’s point of view, resulting in the student eventually taking responsibility for his own behavior.
Exercise, Exercise, Exercise: In my workshops I use the following exercise both to highlight the importance of empathy and to provide participants with an activity to strengthen their ability to be empathic. If my talk is for teachers, I ask them to use a few words to describe a teacher they liked and a few words to describe a teacher they did not like when they were students. I then observe that just as they have words to describe their teachers, their students have words to describe them. I next say, “What if I interviewed your students and asked them to describe you. What words would you hope they use to describe you? What words would they actually use? How close would the words you hope they use be to the words they actually use?” I also ask them to think about what changes they have to make so that the actual descriptions would be closer to the desired descriptions.

Similarly, in my presentations for parents or healthcare professionals or business leaders, I ask them to reflect upon how their children or clients/patients or employees would describe them and how they hoped they would describe them. What this exercise accomplishes is to emphasize that every time we interact with others they form an image of us and that this image will play a large role in determining how comfortably and cooperatively they will relate to us. By asking how others see us, it vividly calls attention to the significance of empathy. I have had many people say to me that they kept the questions involved in these exercises in mind as they interacted with their children or students or employees or patients and that by doing so it enhanced these relationships.
Treat Others as We Would Want to Be Treated: Closely linked to the exercises I prescribe is a question we must consider as we interact with others, namely, “When we say or do things with our child (student, employee, patient), would we want anyone to say or do things to us in the same way?” I recall observing a young child spilling a glass of milk in a restaurant. In response, his father slapped his hand and said, “What’s the matter with you? You never think about what you’re doing. Use your brains!” I wondered how that father would have felt if he had spilled something, and someone had slapped his hand and yelled at him. Would the father have learned anything or would he mainly be resentful? Or, let’s take the earlier example of the manager who responded to someone disagreeing with him by accusing that person of having “problems with authority.” How would this manager feel if his boss disagreed with something he said by dismissing his comments and yelling, “You have trouble with authority.” As another example, which I described in my last column, how would teachers who constantly exhorted students who were struggling in school to “try harder” feel if they were having difficulty with aspects of their job and instead of offering support their principal said, “You wouldn’t have these problems if you tried harder and put in more effort!”?
Honesty and Self-Reflection: While my recommendations for promoting empathy may on the surface appear easy to accomplish, we all too often fail to consider or practice them. If we find ourselves constantly at odds with others, if our relationships are marked by anger, stress, and conflict, if others tend to tune us out, then it is advantageous to us as well as advantageous to those with whom we interact to engage in self-reflection and examine with honesty and a lack of defensiveness the obstacles to our becoming more empathic. For instance, a father with whom I was working regularly recited to his son a list of things that he thought needed improvement (e.g., homework being done on time, keeping a cleaner room, having “better” friends). His son’s behavior did not change. The father said, “He doesn’t listen to me.” I wondered what he could do so that his son might listen to him and how he would feel if someone recited the same list to him night after night after night. It was as if a revelation struck this father when he said, “I would probably do what my son does. Who wants to hear one negative thing after another?” Consequently, father began to focus on things his son did well, striving to lessen comments that his son experienced as nagging. Their relationship improved noticeably.

As occurred with this father, self-reflection can help us to appreciate what triggers our anger or disappointment, how we can speak with people so that they will listen to us even when we are frustrated with them, and how we would like others to treat us. In this process of self-reflection and honesty, we may require the support and insight of an objective person, perhaps a friend or relative with whom we feel comfortable. If the obstacles persist, we should seek the guidance of a counselor/therapist. And remember, if you have struggled for years with problems pertaining to empathy, it may take a while to change. Don’t become discouraged. I believe very strongly that the benefits of being empathic and having satisfying personal and professional relationships warrant whatever time and energy are required to accomplish this goal.
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I definitely believe that ‘Empathy’ is a huge area that is missing within our societies today, a vital life skill and welcome this blog – Kind Regards CABBY

I agree, Jessica. I think that raising kids to be empathetic can help them become better at dealing with conflicts in school (like bullying). Empathy is an important life skill to have.

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I love this article. After taking a counseling course I was much more open about how I was feeling. Through my example, my children learned to express their emotions openly, too.
Later, I created the Kelly Bear Feelings book that fosters empathy in children. Kelly Bear shares a feeling first on each page, and then the adult asks the child or children when they felt that same emotion. To view sample pages, see
http://www.kellybear.com/MatBOOKS.html

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Empathy is very important to teach kids and it seems that there are many folks who do not take the time to ensure that kids are understanding of other people's feelings. This article makes some great points.

 

 

The lack of empathy in the casino-en-ligne these days leads to a lot of problems in social settings so teaching them how to be empathetic early on is important.

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