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The Importance of Teaching Our Children to Be Empathetic

Nurturing empathetic skills is more important than ever.

Source: RichVintage/Gettyimages

Key Points: Levels of empathy are declining among children, contributing to an increasing number of young people feeling lonely, confused, frustrated, and angry. Children can learn empathy from parents who are empathic and at peace at their core. These skills benefit children as they are more likely to grow up to be happy, successful adults.

Empathy is a choice, and it is a vulnerable choice because in order to connect with another person you have to connect to something within yourself that recognizes that specific feeling. We simply need to connect; otherwise, we cannot survive. Therefore, we must be sure to raise new generations with the empathetic tools needed to thrive.

Over the past year, we have learned to limit social contact, which has been vital and necessary. We have stood together and handled the scary situation in the best way possible. The many deaths and horrific consequences that COVID-19 has brought with it are terrifying, and words can't begin to explain how difficult this time has been.

Mental Health Problems Are Increasing While Empathy Is Decreasing

While we are still trying to combat the virus, a lot is currently being written about its consequences on our children and young people. Parents are yelling more, spanking more, and our children's mental health is on the decline. One cannot yet point out the long-term consequences, but most agree that its costs are high and action is required.

Our children's well-being has long been a heavily discussed matter. According to the World Health Organization in 2018, there is a high and increasing rate of mental and behavioural health problems in adolescents at the population level in the WHO European Region. The latest Health Behaviour in School-aged Children survey states that 29 percent of 15-year-old girls and 13 percent of 15-year-old boys in European countries reported "feeling low" more than once a week.

Some studies show that the frequency of a teen's social media use has a clear correlation to their mental health. Teenagers aged 14 to 17 who use social media seven hours a day are more than twice as likely to be diagnosed with depression, treated by a mental health professional, or take medication for a psychological or behavioural issue. These are not great things to hear, especially when living during a pandemic means there is more downtime available to spend on mobile devices.

A study published in 2011 suggests that empathy is declining sharply. Based on a survey of nearly 14,000 children, the results show that the average level of "empathic concern" dropped by 48 percent between 1979 and 2009. There was a particularly steep decline between 2000 and 2009. This is part of why a growing number of young people feel lonely, confused, frustrated, and even angry. Lonely, confused, frustrated, and angry children will not grow up to be happy, resilient, and robust.

If COVID-19 is here for the foreseeable future, we need to use this opportunity to think about long-term solutions.

Empathy Benefits Children Throughout Life

More than anything, children need support to maintain or develop in a positive direction. For this, they need parents or caregivers who are empathetic, motivated, and have mastered self-accord. Self-accord describes a person who is at peace at the core of their being, which is the only place from where a person can relate deeply to another person. In a complex world undergoing extreme transformation, it is a world in which it is difficult to find role models.

By showing empathy towards yourself, the child learns to consider others' feelings, which is one of the most valuable things you can learn from yourself. Being a fellow human in a society that is becoming more complicated requires more and more of our humanness. Love, contact, and security are important keywords because children who feel deeply connected to someone, well-informed, and know that someone is proud of who they are become confident in themselves.

As adults, we must dare to open up and respond positively to empathic behavior, as empathy helps build a sense of security and stronger relationships with others. It promotes social harmony and reduces the likelihood of bullying, which positions children well for a good life. Empathetic behaviour also benefits children later in life. They are better at dealing with conflict and have more satisfying relationships in general. They have lower levels of stress and higher levels of overall happiness. Empathetic adults have greater success personally and professionally.

Close Bonds Help Develop Empathy

A securely attached child will learn that their parent or caregiver will comfort them when they are distressed. They will develop an understanding that they are worthy of being consoled and taken care of. This is essential for healthy development in the child and will set them up for a good start in their life as they will be better able to manage their feelings and behaviours. This will also allow them to better relate to their surroundings while behaving empathically. All close relationships surrounding the child are essential for empathic development.

Although it is still impossible to meet physically in many countries, it is still possible to forge close bonds through letters, phone calls, drawings put in windows, Zoom meetings, and walks in nature. This is a new reality. We must make an effort to change the negative downward spiral for our children through empathic living.

As in all areas of raising children, our children don't do as we say, but do as we do – therefore, we must do the hard work and lead the way.

Iben Sandahl has worked to spread the message of empathy in a European Erasmus+ project and developed a toolkit for schools in four countries to teach students empathy.