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What Does It Mean to Have Empathy?

How can we cultivate empathy in children?

Key points

  • Empathy is the ability to understand and share someone else’s feelings and respond in a compassionate way.
  • People who demonstrate empathy tend to be more resilient and draw others to them.
  • We demonstrate greater empathy towards those with whom we believe we share similarities, even small ones.
Takasuu/Getty Images
Source: Takasuu/Getty Images

What to do this summer? —Develop your child's empathy

As another school year ends, many parents wonder how to make the best use of the summer months. Sometimes, tutoring or targeted work addressing an area with room for improvement is the answer. Maybe a student is below his peers in math, or could solidify a critical skill area. I have known decent writers in high school who seek out a writing course to finesse their essay writing skills so college won’t feel so demanding. Summer can also be a period to focus on softer skills that take time to develop and that may be difficult to focus on during the school year, when so much is going on, especially for parents who work and who have more than one child.

Empathy is one of these soft skills. It draws others to us and contributes to our resilience, making us better able to recover in the face of adversity. Social support keeps us from falling as far so that we have less to bounce back from. To be empathic, one needs to read and feel other people's feelings (affective/emotional empathy) and to understand other people's perspectives (cognitive empathy).

Emotional Empathy

The capacity for emotional empathy partly comes from our experiences. It's hard to imagine anyone's distress if we have never suffered distress of our own. This is not to say that we must have had the exact same experiences as others; we can recognize the emotion of sadness even when it is caused by events we have never endured. For example, a person who has lost a grandparent can recognize the pain of a peer whose best friend moves far away.

Cognitive Empathy

Another aspect of empathy involves understanding the other person's perspective—how they see the situation that led to their particular feelings. Often, in order to be cognitively empathetic,` we need to know something about another person’s historical experiences to understand how an event is likely to be felt by that person.

Konstantin Pelikh/Free For Canva for Education
Source: Konstantin Pelikh/Free For Canva for Education

The Role of Coping in Promoting Empathy

Those well equipped to cope with unpleasant feelings of their own are not surprisingly able to and comfortable supporting a suffering peer. If we are not good at dealing with our own disappointment or sadness, it is less likely we will be inclined to tolerate someone else's reactions to misfortune. And because we don’t like enduring suffering, we are more likely to pull away from another sufferer if there is no obvious solution for changing the situation. Distress that we feel we have no capacity to change or resolve can feel especially threatening, even if it is experienced by another person.

Not surprisingly, children whose parents have helped them learn to deal with their unpleasant emotions are more likely to recognize such emotions in their friends and are less likely to shy away from those displaying emotional distress. They are actually more likely to approach this person and offer consolation, in part because the other person's emotion is not threatening to them. They have learned that it is not something that is impossible to change – that their emotions are not permanently debilitating. They recognize a circumstance that can be coped with and modified, and they are met with extreme gratitude from the person receiving their support.

Children who can cope with their difficult emotions are likely able to do so because some adult has coached them along the way by recognizing or reading their emotions and by acknowledging that how they feel is reasonable given their perspective. If these parents also remind their children that their emotion is not a permanent state and explain how they might temper them, the unpleasantness can seem less intolerable. Those children who can look at situations with less anxiety and prediction of doom are not surprisingly those who are also more likely to take healthy risks. They have more confidence that they can survive or cope with possible unpleasant outcomes. Children without these coping skills, on the other hand, will refrain from engaging in anything involving risk because if the result is less than desirable, they will feel unable to cope with its resulting unpleasantness.

How to Cultivate Coping

You can teach your children to cope by coaching them and having conversations about feelings, highlighting how our feelings are interconnected with our perspectives about situations, and how past experiences can drive our perspectives. You can also soften the impact of negative feelings by sharing examples of how you have coped with your own unpleasant feelings, giving your children more tools with which to deal with their own unpleasant feelings.

Konstantin Pelikh/Free For Canva for Education
Source: Konstantin Pelikh/Free For Canva for Education

How to Cultivate Affective Empathy

When you see your children attempt to soothe someone else's feelings, praise their social awareness as well as their effort to make the other person feel better. Do this over and over again, because that's how important lessons are learned. You can also point out to them the receptivity of those they help, highlighting how much your children’s efforts to help soothe others were appreciated, even if all they did was sit with them in their moment of disappointment or discomfort.

One more way to foster empathy involves inviting your children to imagine how another person is likely to feel, especially as a consequence of your children’s behavior. It should not be surprising that it is easier for people to be mean to those with whom they feel little connection. If we can create connection by highlighting similarities – even small ones – children, as well as adults, are less likely to engage in hurtful behavior towards another person.

Devonyu/Getty Images Pro
Source: Devonyu/Getty Images Pro

How to Cultivate Cognitive Empathy

We can coach perspective-taking by simply asking children to consider how another person may feel in a given situation. An easy example is asking them to read the faces of characters in books or shows they are watching and to explain why they think this. You can foster their flexibility of thought by imagining alternate situations so your children can realize how our different experiences can change how we feel and think about different situations. You can also do this in conversations discussing one of your own friends or co-workers.

Similarity breeds empathy, not contempt, and this is partly why diversity and inclusion work can be so helpful. Highlighting for children the commonalities they share with others makes them much less likely to engage in biased, discriminatory, or hurtful behavior. This kind of work is essential because there are added influences of in-group bias, as well as the stereotypes children are often exposed to in social media. We know from research that even brief coaching in empathy can produce visible improvements, and that these improvements in handling frustration can be lasting.

Thinglass/Getty Images Pro
Source: Thinglass/Getty Images Pro

Final Thoughts

Even brief coaching can produce noticeable improvements and they can be lasting. Practice reading faces of characters in books or other media. Contemplate what others can be thinking in different situations and the underlying reasons why. Share how you cope. Praise your children when they think about others’ feelings and perhaps even more importantly, soothe someone they believe is in distress. Do this over and over and over again, because that’s how we learn any important lesson.

More from Pamela D. Brown Ph.D.
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