EXPERT Q&A

How can parents show empathy to their children?

Children do as you do rather than what you say. Showing empathy is a great way to teach the concept. Learn how from CareNectar expert Martha Tyler.

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Question

I hope to instill empathy in my children starting at a young age. What are some best practices that can help me and others demonstrate empathy to my children?

Answer

This is such a wonderful question, and the good news is that even thinking to ask it, you are well on your way! Here are some tips that may be helpful for you.

Reflect Your Children’s Feelings

One of the best ways to show empathy to your child is by reflecting their feelings, and this can start from day one. If your child is happy and laughing, you can reflect their feeling to them, showing them that you recognize, understand, and acknowledge their happiness.

Examples:

  • Tell your child, “I can see how happy you feel right now!”
  • If your child is stomping their feet and red in the face, you might say, “Wow, it looks like you’re feeling outraged and frustrated right now.”

As they grow older, you can get more specific with the feeling words. Having examples of different feeling words—such as envy, jealousy, optimism, pride, relief, satisfaction, joy, disappointment, hurt, and surprise—will help your little ones express themselves and also make it easier for you to empathize with them.

Place Yourself In Your Child’s Shoes

Another way you can show empathy is to try your best to place yourself in your children’s shoes. Try moving around your house on your knees to see what they see as they move around the house. Or think through their day from their point of view.

A lot of kids have very little control or autonomy over their day. They don’t get a say in much and often don’t feel heard, which can feel really frustrating. One way to help with this frustration is to try to offer as many choices as possible as they move throughout their day.

Examples:

  • Before your child gets dressed, lay out three weather appropriate outfits for them to wear. Give them the opportunity to choose which one they prefer to wear.
  • When preparing their snack, ask your child what color cup or plate they want.

When your child is feeling upset, try to see the situation from their point of view. It might not make sense to you that they are upset about something in their room being in the wrong place, but try acknowledging that it is very important to them. A way to test if you’re empathetic is to watch out for any thoughts of, “Well, that’s just silly” or “What? This isn’t that important.” Shift away from the judgment of your kids’ emotions and move toward curiosity. Try learning more about why they are upset, which can, in turn, lead to an empathetic response.

Practice Empathy

Lastly, it’s important to practice empathy with everyone you can, even yourself. Kids will do as you do, not as you say. So, if you’re constantly complaining or criticizing in front of your kids, they will start to do the same. Practice modeling giving people grace. This is true of yourself too! If you make a mistake, you might think, “Gosh, I’m so clumsy!” Try to redirect that thought to, “Oops! I made a mistake. I wonder how I can fix it?” Your kid will hear your gentleness with yourself and be gentle with themselves too.

Pro Tip: Practice empathy with Siri, Alexa, and Google! Kids, especially young ones, do not know that Alexa isn’t a real person. If you’re rude to Siri, Alexa or Google, they think that it’s okay to be rude. So be sure to ask Siri politely for the weather update, or say thank you to Alexa after she turns off the lights. This is a great habit to build and when your children hear you say please and thank you, they will likely do the same!

Meet The Expert


Martha Tyler

Martha has her Masters in Education and is a certified Positive Discipline Parent Educator. She has worked as a sitter, nanny, tutor, or teaching artist over the past 20+ years. In addition, Martha has hosted a child care podcast, Chronicles of Nannya, for several years. She is also the co-founder of Compassionate Childcare LLC and is thrilled to be able to share her experience, knowledge, and resources with CareNectar!