Welcome to another Motherhood Monday – I’m grateful you’re here! On Mondays, we choose a different family value or character trait and we share ideas and strategies to focus on that trait in the coming week. This week’s focus is on empathy.
Cultivating empathy for others is really one of the greatest gifts we can give our children. If we want them to have deep, intimate and meaningful relationships, empathy is going to be a must-have. From the playground to the board room and everywhere in between, our kids need to learn to recognize and acknowledge the feelings of others if they’re going to get by in this world.
How about in their future marriages? I read this stat and it blew my mind – according to research by the Gottman Institute, 69% of problems in a relationship are unsolvable. What?! 69% of problems in a relationship are unsolvable – there’s no solution to them! So that’s things like personality traits your partner does that drive you nuts. Or the patterns and histories people have with how they spend or save money. Our own individual tastes and preferences.
So the whole idea is that if as a couple, you have to learn to manage these things rather than fix or eliminate them, imagine the level of empathy that requires! What kind of empathy is required to see your spouse’s perspective and imagine their feelings, even when you will never agree? Personally, so many things really come to mind that Jeff and I just don’t agree on. As I reflected on them, I realized how much empathy was required for us to move through that.
Jeff loves having our dogs sleep in our bed. It brings him so much joy to have them snuggling with him. Maybe you can relate? I grew up in the sticks where dogs were around but they weren’t these pampered children – don’t at me on this – but dogs pretty much stayed outside. So, having the dogs in our bed is a really big sticking point for us. We’ve been together for 16 years and when I tell you it took a lot of empathy – guys it wasn’t until a few weeks ago when I bought a little dog bed and agreed to put it at the foot of our bed that Jeff warmed to the idea of letting the dog sleep there. The dog still sneaks into our bed during the night and I’ll be honest, I really hate it, but I know how much it means to him. I see the joy and the peace and the comfort it brings him. And I love him. And I realized that the reason we’ve made this disagreement work, is rooted in empathy.
It’s that trait that allows us to feel what other people are feeling. The good news is, that while we’re all born with some level of empathy, it can definitely be taught and cultivated. And I just think raising kids with high levels of empathy – especially in this me-centered world we’re living in – it’s a powerful, powerful force friends. It’s the best antidote for bullying. Best antidote for division. Best antidote for hate. Best antidote for racism. So let’s talk about 4 ways we can encourage empathy in our kids.
- Discuss emotions frequently
Empathy develops from self awareness. We have to keep talking to our kids about emotions and helping them recognize emotions. Our children need an emotional vocabulary to have empathy. Your toddler already recognizes happy, sad, angry, and scared. And it’s through us helping our kids to have awareness of their emotions and the emotions of others that they’ll grow that emotional vocabulary.
So how can we do this? A lot of it starts by asking our kids great questions. Often. Ask them what they think. Ask them how they feel. Ask them what’s important to them. If you notice a child is sad or crying at the park or a good one is at the pediatrician’s office, ask your kids – what do you think he’s feeling? How can you tell?
You can also be aware of connecting facial expressions and body language to emotions through just narrating the day’s events. When you shared that cookie with your sister, did you see the big smile she had on her face? Wow, did you hear how loud your voice got when you were angry? And we can interject our own empathy here too – I get it. I would probably feel angry too if someone grabbed what I was playing with out of my hands.
When my girls were younger, I’d play a silly game with them where I’d make faces and they would try to guess my emotions. I’d made exaggerated happy, sad, angry, silly, confused – whatever I could think of, and I’d ask them to do the same. The point was just to build an awareness of different emotions and their expressions.
And as they get older, like now they’re almost 4 and 5.5, they’re starting to become more aware not only of their own emotions, but in recognizing the emotions of others. In turn, that emotional vocabulary is expanding. Also around this age, they start to realize theory of mind where they can start to have the perspective of others. This is a great age to start asking them how they think others are feeling or felt about a certain situation. This is a great age to explore their moral imagination through books or movies. While you’re watching, pause and talk about how characters must feel. We’ve all read books and watched movies that really marked us, and that feeling of the tugging on our heartstrings, that’s empathy – it’s empathizing with the characters and their journeys.
And then a little older, usually the 7-8 year old range, our kids can start to understand where another person might be coming from. And this is such a beautiful and powerful recognition that really allows them to feel that empathy for others by imagining putting themselves in another person’s shoes.
- Continue teaching self-regulation skills
I did a whole episode on this, so if you want to hear more about teaching your kids how to self-regulate, go back and listen to episode 4. Friends, this is crucial, because unless and until a child knows how to cope and manage their own emotions, they can’t graduate to the point of empathy for others.
Sometimes we get caught up and we expect our kids to just know how to be empathetic in the middle of conflict when things are stressful. We hear them fighting about something and we intervene and we’re like “Do you know how your sister must feel right now?!” And then we actually expect our kids to be able to give an answer.
That’s asking the impossible of our kids – in that moment they’re not in their learning brain. The part of their brain that processes empathy literally isn’t working. So the more we can teach them to catch themselves before they get in that red-light zone, and then regulate their nervous systems, the faster they’ll be able to access empathy.
And I would encourage you to explore with your kids, what helps them regulate best. Like we discussed in episode 4, when our kids are in that yellow-light simmering zone, what skills do they have that best helps them to bring their bodies back into the green-light zone and back into their rational and learning brain where they can empathize?
How you can start is by gently and compassionately, with empathy and dignity, help them to notice when they’re starting to become triggered or dysregulated. I spoke about this as it relates to my youngest, but at 4 years old, I can tell clear as day when she’s about to lose it. Her arms go stiff by her side, her hands clench into fists, her brow furrows into this little scowl – and by gently pointing this out to her (after the fact) over and over, little by little, my goal is that she learns to recognize it in herself. So that soon, she can notice when she’s getting heated and already know what calms her body down best. Everyone has their own unique stress signs. And if this is something you’ve never noticed about yourself, take notice. What happens in your body when you start to feel triggered – when you’re beginning to get upset, frustrated, annoyed, hurt, angry, etc.
Help your kids try different tactics to bring their nervous systems back to homeostasis. Again, listen to episode 4 if you haven’t already, but one of the easiest is teaching our kids how to incorporate breath work. When they feel these big emotions coming on, they can stop and take slow deep breaths. I practice this with my kids often – imagine an elevator in your body taking your breath from your tummy to your head as you breathe in. Now hold it for a second. Now breathe out – slow long exhale for twice as long as you breathed in. Your kids being able to do this on their own, that’s a life-long coping skill that you’re giving them.
The key is that when we can recognize how our bodies start responding to stress and how we can best calm them back down, that’s how we find empathy in disagreements, that’s how we find empathy when we don’t see eye to eye, that’s how we find empathy when we’re really upset by something. Instead of flying off the handle, we can notice our bodies starting to simmer, self-regulate with the skills we have, and then activate empathy.
- Notice and acknowledge empathetic behavior
I say it often to myself – where my focus goes, my energy flows. Or another way, what we appreciate, appreciates. So be intentional about what you’re focusing on. Focusing on and encouraging empathetic behavior encourages more of it in the future. Make your praise specific: “You brought your dad a Band-Aid when he cut his thumb in the kitchen. That was so kind and helpful!”
Be a parent who expects empathy. I expect my kids to show empathy. My kids usually act how they see themselves to be. So the more I tell them they’re kind, the more I tell them they’re helpful (even when sometimes it feels like they’re not), the more I notice the small things they do to care for each other, my kids will internalize themselves as that – as a kind, caring person and they’ll start acting in accordance to what I’m speaking over them.
And on the flipside, if acknowledging and praising empathy encourages it, shame is the fastest way to discourage and reduce empathy. In episode 13, we talked about guilt and about how there’s productive guilt that actually helps us to live in alignment with our moral code. A little bit of that is healthy in our kids if they’ve done something they perceive to be wrong – it prompts them to make amends and apologize – to make things right. Shame is different. Guilt says “you did something bad”. Shame says “you are bad.” So we really want to make sure as parents, that when we’re trying to get our kids to empathize, or we’re in a moment of teaching or discipline, that we’re super watchful of our tone and our words. Are we embarrassing or shaming them in front of others? If the message we’re sending is an attack on their character – their person – instead of a discipline relating to an action they took, separate and apart from them as a person, then that shame is a huge barrier to them developing empathy.
- Model empathy
I sound like a broken record every week talking about how we have to model these values and traits in our homes if we want to cultivate them, but I can’t overstate it. It’s the most important handle with every single topic we discuss. If we want to see it, we have to be it.
Extending empathy to our children is essential for them to begin to understand themselves and then start to understand others. If we make responding to our kids with empathy the norm, it sets our kids up to feel confident about handling their own feelings, and the feelings of others. And it makes sense. If your kids are confident they can manage and find a healthy way to respond to their own big feelings, it’ll be easier for them to respond to and manage the big feelings of others. They won’t be so intimidated by others’ feelings. They’ll be quick to to empathize and respond from a place of empathy.
Two other quick points on modeling empathy – especially for those of you with older children. I’d really encourage you to be conscious of, aware of, intentional with, the culture of competition in your home. Listen, I’m as competitive as they come, and I’m not talking family game night here. I’m talking about unintentionally creating division through competition. Division is one of the quickest silencers of empathy – pitting your kids against each other: sports, academics, or comparing them to their friends. If you’re more concerned with your kids test scores than you are with anything else about them, it’s going to be really hard for your middle or highschooler to feel empathy for her classmates that she feels in competition with. So I think that’s something to be mindful of.
And then finally, we can really encourage our kids to use their voice, and see us using ours, to empathize with people. Regardless of whether our kids are extroverts or introverts, we can teach them to speak up. We can start small. When we’re in public we can stop speaking for them. When they’re asked a question – we can hold the silence and let them answer, even if it’s just a yes or a no. We can teach them to look someone in the eyes who’s speaking to them. We can teach them about strong, confident body language. Because if we want them to notice what others are going through and have the courage to speak up or act on it, they’re going to need these skills.
A child who knows themselves, and what they stand for, that’s a child who is more likely to speak out for the needs of others. So yes, empathy and noticing the need of others is the huge first step – that’s awareness. We can’t intervene in a world we can’t see. But we don’t want them to just notice, we want them to use that empathy to prompt them to act – to do something about it.
I hope this Motherhood Monday post has been an encouragement to you! Let me know below in the comments, how do you like to encourage empathy in your home?
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