Parents are generally deeply invested in their child’s well-being and success. Recent studies show that one of the greatest parental stresses regarding elementary school-aged children centers around their development of socialization skills and peer interactions.
Let’s face it, their ability to foster friendships throughout their childhood years is crucial—and predicts many emotional, social and economic outcomes. For example, children’s social interactions predict their sense of self-worth, the ways they view others, and their positive adjustment during adulthood. Certain traits and characteristics that a child possesses may make it easier or harder for them to interact with others. While children who do not develop certain characteristics may suffer when it comes to socializing with their peers.
So what characteristics are crucial to instill in your child?
One of the key answers is an ability to empathize. Studies have shown that children who are more empathetic have an easier time socializing. Empathy can be defined as “the ability to be aware of, perceive, understand, and be sensitive to the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of another and to express that understanding through a supportive response.”
These kinds of responses are not only the willingness to help another child who has fallen on the playground, but also their ability to size up a situation and recognize appropriate ways to socially respond in the ways they speak, act, and understand their social environment. This kind of empathetic responding has been identified as a key personality trait in children who are able to keep friendships.
Early theorists suggested that children are not emotionally developed enough to understand and demonstrate empathy. However, recent research has shown that this does not appear to be the case. For example, have you ever noticed an infant cry or grimace with distress, not because they were sad, but because another person in vicinity was upset? Infants as young as 14 months showed cognitive displays of empathy when responding to a simulated distress in either a parent or stranger. My mother even recounts instances when, as a three-year-old, I would cry at the sight of my younger sister crying, or laugh at the sound of my sister’s laugh.
So if your child is already crying at the sight of your tears or leaping for joy at another’s display of happiness, they are showing the beginnings of empathy. Of course, they will need to develop more mature empathy as they grow. And…that’s where you come in. Here’s some strategies you can make use of in your efforts to help your child develop empathy.
Children learn through observational learning, so teach your children empathy through your example. Specifically, demonstrate empathy in your direct one-on-one interactions with your children. Validate their feelings and acknowledge their emotions whether or not you agree with their emotional expression or actions. For example, even when they are in trouble or have done something wrong, let your child know that you empathize with how he or she is feeling, though you may not condone their actions. This will allow your child to realize that their feelings are valid.
One study suggests letting kids have “do-overs” when they respond poorly to a situation. They offer a four-step process. First, make children aware of their unkind behavior. Second, help them understand how their poor actions may have influenced those around them; allow them to see other’s perspectives. Third, work with them to repair and reconcile. Finally, set expectations for how they should act next time.
By allowing your children to experience “do-over” moments, you are helping them to understand and empathize with how other people within a social situation may be feeling. By teaching them how their actions influence others, their empathy will be stretched.
Teach emotional regulation skills
Children will be better equipped to understand the feelings of others if they are already aware of their own. Learning to control one’s own emotions can serve as a way to express empathy to others. Children who lack emotional regulation skills may have a more difficult time making friends and a harder time displaying empathy in social interactions with their peers. Thus, gaining a greater understanding of how their own emotions work will allow children to recognize and empathize with emotions in their peers.
One way to help your children improve their emotional regulation skills is to set expectations and goals for them before a situation takes place. For example, discuss with your children what they might do if a classmate or friend is unkind. Role-play different situations, helping them learn and practice ways they might appropriately respond. Help them practice proactive ways they could assist another child in trouble at school or on the playground. By practicing empathic responses beforehand, they will be more likely to demonstrate appropriate responses in actual social settings.
Discuss real-life issues with them
As children grow, help them understand concerns that are outside their little world. When children ask you why something is the way that it is, don’t be afraid to tell them the truth at their level of understanding. For example, don’t shy away from helping them understand why their sick relative is in the hospital or why someone is suffering. Stories often cultivate emotion, and by sharing stories of people experiencing hardships and trials outside of your children's perspectives, empathy will be fostered.
Use news stories and current events to help them understand global issues. This is not to turn them into the next politician or world affairs leader but to help them gain different and greater perspectives. This site has been successful for many parents trying to share current events and news with their children.
Show your feelings
Don’t entirely hide your own emotions from your children. By demonstrating and labeling your own feelings, your children will become more aware and able to identify their own emotions. Let them know when you are frustrated, sad, or even angry and share ways that you try to understand other’s perspectives and handle your own emotions responsibly. Seeing a healthy display of a range of emotions by a parent or adult they trust will help your children understand that it is okay and even good to feel all kinds of feelings.
Helping your child to develop the attribute of empathy takes time. Frankly, most adults are still in the process of learning to be more empathetic. As you make the investment, remember that striving to raise a child who is compassionate, sensitive, aware, and empathetic to the feelings and perspectives of others is one of the greatest gifts you can give your child in helping them to learn the social skills they need to excel in their adult lives.