By Michele Borba, Palm Springs-based educational psychologist
Empathy is integral to kids’ current and future happiness, success, and well-being. And the good news is, it’s a skill set that can be actively nurtured and taught at any age (just like learning to ride a bike or speak a foreign language).
Corresponding with the essential habits of empathetic children (See attached release), here are nine proven “Empathy Builders” parents can use to help kids flex and grow their “empathy muscles” and—eventually—hardwire empathy into a lifelong habit.
HABIT 1: Emotional Literacy
EMPATHY BUILDER: Become “feeling detectives.” The next time you and your child go to the park or run an errand to the mall or grocery store, encourage your child to “investigate” how other people might be feeling. Ask questions like: “Listen to the boy’s voice. How do you think he feels?” “Look how that girl has her fists so tight. See the scowl on her face? What do you think she’s saying to the other girl?”
HABIT 2: Moral Identity
EMPATHY BUILDER: Help your child create a “caring code.” Talk to your child about the kind of person he want to become, how he wants to make other feel, what he stands for, etc. Using his answers, help him develop an age-appropriate personal mantra such as “I’m a caring person,” “I know it’s nice to be nice,” or “I reach out to help others.” To help him remember his mantra, suggest that he use it to make a poster for his room, as his screensaver, etc.
HABIT 3: Perspective Taking
EMPATHY BUILDER: Switch sides. Next time there’s a sibling battle or friendship tiff, don’t offer advice or instructions. Instead, ask the parties involved to “reverse sides.” You say, “I know you’re upset, but you two can figure out how to solve it. Both of you tell me what happened, but from your sibling’s side.” They listen to each version, and then you ask: “Now that you know both sides, how will you work this out so it’s fair to both of you?”
HABIT 4: Moral Imagination
EMPATHY BUILDER: Write your own ending. The next time you read a book with your child, pause before turning the last page and ask her to make up the ending before hearing the writer’s version. Ask questions like: “Imagine you’re the character right now. What would you do?” “If you were the author, how would you end it?” Then finish the book and vote on which version you prefer: your child’s or the writer’s.
HABIT 5: Self-Regulation
EMPATHY BUILDER: Learn the ABCs of stress management. Self-management is crucial for empathy. (Remember, kids who are focused on their own strong emotions such as anger or anxiety, as well as kids who become easily over-aroused by other’s needs, are less able to recognize other’s feelings and/or calmly think of how to help.) Teach ways to cope (and to decrease the empathy gap) with these ABCs of stress management:
• A = Aware. Teach your child to tune in to his feelings. “What am I feeling?” “What do I need?” I have to take care of myself so I can help others.”
• B = Breathe. Focusing on deep, slow breaths can reduce stress and help your child better manage his emotions.
• C = Calm. Find what helps your child decompress: exercising, being with others, journaling, listening to music. Encourage him to make this his go-to action or activity when he is feeling stress or other strong emotions.
EMPATHY BUILDER: Forecast and fight bad feelings. Stress comes before tantrums, meltdowns, and outbursts. The earlier your child recognizes that she needs to calm down, the better able she’ll be to manage her emotions. Start by helping your child recognize the signs that she’s stressed. Does she get a stomachache? Does she feel jumpy? Next, show her how to calm down. (Young children especially need to be shown and told how to decompress; this is not a natural instinct!) Focusing on taking deep breaths, sitting in a quiet place, listening to soothing music, and exercising are all good strategies.
HABIT 6: Kindness
EMPATHY BUILDER: Use the “Two Kind Rule.” Kids learn kindness by comforting, helping, caring, sharing, and cooperating, not through hearing lectures. An easy way to help kids practice kindness is using the Two Kind Rule: “Say or do at least two kind things to people each day.” To nurture empathy, the deed must come “straight from the giver’s heart,” be delivered “face-to-face” (at least at the beginning so the giver sees the recipient’s response), and be delivered without expecting anything in return. Help kids see how to put this rule into practice by brainstorming possibilities together: say hello and smile, share something, help around the house without being asked, give a high five to a deserving person, ask someone who looks lonely to eat or play with you, etc.
HABIT 7: Collaboration
EMPATHY BUILDER: Don’t hold your “we.” Self-absorption diminishes empathy, so intentionally switch your pronouns (when appropriate) from “Them” to “Us” and “Me” to “We” when talking with your kids. “What should we do?” “Which would be better for us?” “Let’s take a ‘We’ vote to find out what we choose.” It may sound simple, but subtle pronoun changes can go a long way toward helping kids realize that life should revolve around “Us” and “We” not “Me” and “I.”
HABIT 8: Moral Courage
EMPATHY BUILDER: Start with HEART. Many kids will need to grow their courage—and perhaps their communication skills—before they’re ready to publicly stand up for others. So teach: “It’s never too late to show a friend you care” with ways to comfort someone at the scene . . . or later. (Over time, putting these strategies into practice will help kids develop the confidence they need to become Upstanders!)
H = Help. Run for first aid. Call others to help. Pick up what’s broken.
E = Empathize. “He did that to me and I was scared.” “I know how you feel.”
A = Assist. “Do you need help?” “I’ll find a teacher.” “I’ll walk you to the office.”
R = Reassure. “It happens to other kids.” “I’m still your friend.” “Teachers will help.”
T = Tell how you feel. “You didn’t deserve that.” “I’m so sorry.” “I know it’s not true.”
HABIT 9: Compassionate Change-making
EMPATHY BUILDER: Help them make a difference (and encourage direct contact). Kids who see altruism as part of who they are and how they live their lives are more likely to become Change-makers. Provide regular opportunities for your child to infuse altruism into her life. Remember that empathy is best activated face- to-face, so select projects that put your child in direct contact with the recipient. It could be bringing toys to the children’s shelter or delivering books to a senior citizens’ home. Then, keep it going! A one-time-only service project is usually not enough to instill an empathic mind-set.
Dr. Michele Borba is an internationally recognized educational psychologist and expert in bullying, social-emotional learning, and character development and has spoken to over one million participants on five continents. She is a Today Show contributor, featured expert on Dateline, The View, Dr. Phil, NBC Nightly News, CNN, MSNBC, Dr. Oz, Dr. and The Early Show. Her latest books are UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About Me World. and The 6Rs of Bullying Prevention.For more information: micheleborba.com, and Twitter @micheleborba