How to teach empathy

Lessons in empathy: how to teach kids to feel for others.
Lessons in empathy: how to teach kids to feel for others.  Photo: Getty

Q: My 6year-old doesn't seem empathetic at all. Last night at dinner, he happily mentioned how when he was introducing himself in a group, his thing that others didn't know about him was that he hated his older brother. His poor brother looked stricken and almost burst into tears. If you had asked me before, I would have said they had a very close, friendly relationship. Talking about it later, it was clear he had put zero thought into whether it would hurt his brother's feelings. He's good at identifying his own emotions but doesn't seem to notice anyone else's at all.

A: Empathy is such an important part of development, and you're far from the first to ask why your child doesn't show empathy.

So, let's start with the easy question: What is empathy?

Merriam-Webster defines it as "the feeling that you understand and share another person's experiences and emotions: the ability to share someone else's feelings."

Sounds about right, so what is so wrong with wanting our children to have empathy (and more of it)? Absolutely nothing. But we have to temper our parental expectations with what is developmentally appropriate for our young children's brains.

The act of "feeling that you understand and share another person's experiences and emotions" is a big deal, brainwise. The part of the brain that helps with this is the prefrontal cortex, and that is the last part of the brain to mature. (Some specialists are now putting this maturation level to be finished in our late 20s. Yikes!)

If a child is in suitable conditions for growth and his brain is somewhat typically developing, we can expect (and I use that word cautiously) to see signs of empathy anywhere from five to eight years of age.

What does all of this have to do with your little boy? Well, the fact that your six-year-old had no idea he was hurting his brother is a good sign.

As this prefrontal cortex matures, the brain truly does struggle to understand the feelings of others. The brain is pretty black and white in its thinking. First, the child becomes aware of himself and his feelings, and then (slowly) he becomes aware of others.

In essence, I don't believe your son was purposely hurting your older son. Maybe he was being rude accidentally while trying to impress his young peer group. Maybe he was feeling put out by the big brother and sent a zinger. Maybe he was feeling competitive, and this was a way of putting him higher on the ladder.

Whatever the reason, your younger son did not set out to hurt his brother the way he did.

What can be done here?

First, take care of the person with the hurt feelings. Empathise that it is a "pretty yucky feeling to have your brother say something like that" and "that does not feel good, does it?" You can support the idea that this little brother is young and growing while also allowing your older son to feel the full range of his emotions. Try not to worry what this means for their brotherly relationship or that they will end up archenemies or that your older son is the "poor victim" while your younger son is an unfeeling jerk. When in doubt, listen more and speak less. Sympathetic nodding is my number one parenting tool.

Now, let's a take look at your six-year-old. Here is a good set of questions to ask yourself:

1. Has he ever done anything like this before? If not, consider this a one-off, have him make amends to his brother (try to get the six-year-old to pick the way he wants to say sorry), and move the family along. Don't dwell on it and do not force an apology.

2. Does your younger son often speak of others in an unkind manner, while showing that he likes it? If this is the case, this is a child who is in need of more attention. Not attention to the negativity per se, but one-on-one time to find out what he needs. A child showing some amount of pleasure in hurting others does not need harsh discipline or consequences.

This will only serve to fully cement the behaviours you don't want. This child needs close attention, support and empathy from you.

3. Does your child look surprised or upset that he hurt someone else? If yes, this is a good sign. This means that he had no malice in his words, that his brain is young and that he only saw one perspective to consider: his own. This is not a sign of meanness, it is a sign of immaturity. So, as always, kindness is in order. You can't push maturity, and no one can really teach empathy.

You can help build the empathy neural pathways, though, in simple ways. My favourite is reading stories with your child. Talk about the main characters and discuss how the characters are feeling. Have this be a loose and easy-feeling exchange (no "moral of the story" talk or lectures). If you notice it is a real struggle for your child to grasp "feeling" words, be it for himself or others or characters in a story, be sure to check with your doctor to rule out any other issues, such as autism or Asperger's syndrome.

Also, tell stories from your own youth. Tell stories of when you had to make decisions and you made mistakes, and what you learned. Emphasise different feeling words, like, "What I said caused the other person to feel lonely and sad." Look for signs your child is following you and ask him whether he has ever felt that way. Did someone ever leave him out? Did your child ever feel angry about something a friend said or did? Again, it is more important for you to listen here rather than impart wisdom.

Finally, try to not allow this to hijack your family or your parenting life. Don't make your child an "empathy project." Try not to assign roles of "victim" and "mean kid," as these roles will ultimately cause more harm than good.

You do not have to look far to see that it is a deeply mature feature to be able to truly empathise with another human. As adults, we are called to do this every day with our own children, and look at how we struggle with it.

It is like this: You know the little "Customer in Training" kid shopping carts?

Well, our young sons and daughters are "Empathisers in Training."

As adults, let's keep empathy alive in ourselves to role-model, as well as for our young ones in training.

- Washington Post