How to Help a Young Child Cultivate Empathy

By Lacey Byrne, Yellowbrick Staff Writer

Although most parents consider how to teach their child empathy, or make sure to give back in ways that makes sense for their family throughout the year; approaching Thanksgiving is a time when we are acutely aware of empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand and share another person’s point of view or feelings. In today’s climate of multiple voices, points of views and platforms to share our opinions, we need to be particularly aware of our ability to empathize.

As parents, we need to guide our children into feeling empathy as well. Family therapist Marc Lehman, of Connecticut, describes that there are basically two types of kids; those that are primary feelers and naturally gravitate towards compassion and empathy and those that are primary thinkers and need to develop their sense of empathy and understanding. He suggests that parents need to first identify which way their child leans and then help to develop their sense of empathy, if it doesn’t come naturally to their child.

This summer, my 9 year old daughter and I spent some time in New York City. Coming from a very rural town in Northwest Connecticut, the landscape of NYC couldn’t be more opposite. She hadn’t experienced visible homelessness until our trip. It bothered her a great deal and she had a lot of questions. I used this as an opportunity to have a conversation about a significant problem in our country. I could have chosen to gloss over it, make an excuse or cross the street so as to avoid the subject altogether. It’s not always easy to dive into these conversations with our kids and often their age, their personality, and our own misgivings about issues get in the way.

Marc Lehman advocates for families to be honest about their feelings and to not be afraid of the hard conversations. Although our kids want to see parents as always knowing the answer, and always standing strong, it’s important to show kids that as parents, we too have feelings of sadness. Expressing sadness about others is an opportunity to have a discussion as well as a demonstration of how we can support one another when feeling sad.

Blogger Ivy B offers suggestions for parents to help cultivate feelings of empathy in their children.

  • Be empathetic towards your child. Try and see things from their perspective.
  • Be empathetic towards others in front of your child.
  • Teach your child to care for others.
  • Give back to others as a family.

Each year, as we approach Thanksgiving, many families donate food to food banks, and help out at soup kitchens. Consider what other ways you and your family can give back and how you can involve your kids. What if instead of purchasing canned goods at your local grocery store and dropping them into the donation bin provided, drop them off at your local food bank with your child. Having your child see where the food goes and taking them out of the comfortable familiar grocery store environment can be very impactful.

Marc Lehman is a marriage and family therapist with a practice in West Hartford and Canton Connecticut. Find out more about his practice and his approach at www.marclehmanlmft.com.

– Lacey Byrne, Yellowbrick Staff Writer

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