Are we teaching empathy by example?

How to model empathy to kids.
How to model empathy to kids. Photo: Getty

Being a parent requires a lot of patience. It requires us to be kind, understanding and empathetic towards our children. However, this is often easier said than done. It's not so simple to keep calm when you're under stress or when you need to get the kids out the door. It's not so simple to pay attention to your child's needs all the time. But there is a lot of value in modelling empathy to your children.

The value of raising empathetic children 

According to clinical psychologist, Sally-Anne McCormack, it's important that we understand the difference between 'empathy' and 'sympathy'. 

“Empathy is being able to understand the feelings of others and being able to share those as well. It's not about feeling sorry for people,” says McCormack. 

In the 2009 The Australian Covert Bullying Prevalence study, results found that over one in four children in Years 4 to 9 reported being bullied at least every few weeks.

A recent article on Essential Kids argues that emotional intelligence is the key to preventing bullying in children. By educating children to recognise emotions in themselves and others, they will be better able to express and regulate these emotions. And in turn, have healthier relationships and perform better at school.

Dr. Sarah Edelman's piece for the Sydney Morning Herald shows that empathy can play a positive role even in tragic circumstances. In February 2012, Peter Frazer lost his daughter when Kaine Barnett drove his truck into the emergency stopping lane on the Hume Highway near Berrima, New South Wales. 

Kaine was recently sentenced to up to three years jail, but Frazer was seen weeping and hugging the man who killed his daughter and the tow truck driver she was with. Frazer doesn't agree with the sentencing - he believes he's suffered enough. Knowing that Kaine has suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, flashbacks, sleeplessness and suicidal thoughts - has simply amplified his empathy for this man. 

Peter Frazer's willingness to feel empathy for Kaine Barnett may fall outside what is to be expected, but this shows the immense power that empathy can have on a person's life.

And it begins with laying the foundation for empathy.

Yvette Vignando, publisher of www.happychild.com.au, says:

“Children’s ability to make friends, follow rules, solve social problems, maintain resilience and self-soothe just to name a few examples, is very much dependent on their ability to pick up on how another person is feeling and respond appropriately."

"The best and really only way for parents to raise an empathetic child is to first be a role model and secondly remind their children to notice and respect other people’s feelings.” 

When parents struggle with their own empathy

Vignando says that empathy levels do vary from person to person and there could be a multitiude of reasons for this.

“I think everyone has a degree of empathy - every parent - but some people have not been raised to be aware of and value the feelings of others,” says Vignando.

“If parents have less empathy it’s most likely because they have not been taught that emotional awareness is an important part of communication and relationship building.”

There could be other reasons too. 

“Genetics can play a part - for example, we know that people on the Autism spectrum find it more difficult to notice and understand another person’s feelings,” explains Vignando.

McCormack says that a mental health condition can also account for the lack in empathy, narcissistic personality disorder being one such example.

“If a person is unwell mentally, they may not have the ability to look outside themselves and see how other people are feeling, including their children,” says McCormack. 

Empathy and the research findings

Feeling empathy for your child may not necessarily mean you'll be more patient with them, but it does make your parenting role much easier.

Vignando says, “Parents who use empathy frequently have been found to have children who experience fewer tantrums, are more skilled at calming themselves and are better at solving their own social problems.” 

Studies have also shown that empathetic parenting can have an enormous impact on children with extreme behavioural problems. 

In a 2012 study completed at the University of Sydney, Dr David Hawes and his team looked at children aged two to four with “callous-unemotional" (CU) traits. CU traits are when a child shows a fearless temperament and no interest in other people's emotions, especially when they are upset or in need of help. 

The study found that the quality of a parent's emotional interaction and attachment with a young child is crucial to predicting if that child will develop this high-risk pattern of behaviour.

If a child receives consistent and warm parenting in a secure family environment it can protect against those traits. 

In another 2012 study, Washington University found that an empathetic approach can even affect the size of the hippocampus - an important part of our brain. 

The hippocampus has several functions: a key role in forming new memories and for retrieving longer term memories, a role in how we react to stress, and the size of the hippocampus is related to severe mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and major depression.

The mothers in the study helped their three to five year old children during a mildly stressful task - waiting for eight minutes before opening a brightly wrapped gift placed within arm’s reach. 

Many years later, the sizes of the children’s hippocampi were measured, and researchers found that children with more supportive mothers had a significantly larger hippocampus. All other factors were accounted for. 

This shows how a warm and nurturing parenting approach can really change a child's life.

Tips on how to teach empathy

  • Label your child's feelings to help them express what they're feeling e.g. “You're feeling frustrated.”
  • Respond to your child’s feelings with empathy
  • Encourage your child to express their feelings 
  • Reinforce good behaviours e.g. "How did you feel when you helped Grandma? It feels good to help others!"
  • Praise their efforts rather than results 
  • Analyse the behaviours of characters in books, TV shows and movies e.g. "How do you think they feel? What do you think you'd feel like?" 
  • Teach your child respect and manners 

Being empathetic towards yourself

And remember to show yourself empathy too.

“Parenting is the hardest role. You don't get holidays, you don't get breaks,” McCormack says. 

“It's very rewarding and wonderful, but there are times where it's also awful, frustrating and stressful.” 

McCormack says that we can't be patient and understanding all the time, and it's okay for children to know that.

“This is a powerful learning opportunity because we're teaching them that they don't have to be perfect.” 

All of us want to give our children the best start in life. Let's start by leading the way first.

Thuy Yau is a freelance writer and mother of three. She is incredibly passionate about emotional wellbeing. You can follow Thuy on Twitter, join her on Facebook, or read her personal development blog at Inside a Mother's Mind

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