3 Ways Empathy Can Help Your Kids

Today, everything seems to be going right for once. You successfully gave your daughter a bath, you let her choose her favorite outfit, and you even got in some quality play-time! Things are looking pretty good.

But then, disaster strikes!

Or at least, that’s what your daughter seems to think. She’s perfectly happy one minute, and then the next minute she’s in full-blown pouting mode. And to you, it seems like there’s no good reason. You cry out in frustration, “Quit your whining! There’s nothing to cry about!”

When kids start getting fussy or feeling upset, it can be easy to dismiss their feelings — especially when it’s hard to understand why.

Unfortunately, this dismissal is the exact opposite of empathy. According to Merriam-Webster, empathy is “understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another.” (1) While empathy may not always come naturally, it really is key to raising our kids right. As researcher Dr. John Gottman (2) wisely said,

Empathy not only matters; it is the foundation of effective parenting.

But just why is it that empathy is so important? And how can our empathy help our kids?

1. More Empathy Themselves

Kids are perhaps some of the best imitators on the planet. According to research by Andrew Meltzoff of the University of Washington, infants as young as two to three weeks old are already imitating simple things like sticking their tongues out. (3)

While imitation can help kids develop physically, children also can develop socially and morally through imitation. Our kids are watching us carefully to learn how to treat others. And if we want our kids to be kind and understanding, we must be empathetic ourselves. In fact, a 2013 study found that when children feel understood, they are much more likely to be empathetic. (4)

So next time you want to brush off your child’s emotions as ridiculous, pause for a second and think about what your example is teaching. The more empathetic you are, the more likely they will be to treat others with empathy too.

2. More Secure Parent-Child Attachment

Not only can your empathy help your child become empathetic, but it can also help your child feel more secure and connected. For example, one study found that parental empathy is strongly related to a more secure parent-child attachment, or a close and healthy emotional bond. (5)

As humans, we are wired to connect. And according to Bowlby’s attachment theory, a secure attachment is a vital part of children’s survival and development. (6) Without this secure attachment, children can have a harder time developing socially, emotionally, and even physically. (7)

As we respond to our children’s negative emotions, we should think carefully about our response. Are we providing the empathy necessary to help our kids feel secure?

3. Better Emotional Regulation

Negative emotions are a regular part of life, even for kids. These negative emotions may come from something as simple as the disappointment of not getting their way or the frustration of having to share. But no matter how small the problem seems, these emotions are real! And for kids, learning how to deal with these emotions is a key part of their development.

When those trying emotional times crop up for our kids, how do we as parents react? The way we choose to respond to our children’s negative emotions teaches them how to handle their own emotions. Once again, kids learn a lot from our example!

One article published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology explains that when we respond to our kids with empathy, their negative emotions appear more manageable. Kids then are “better able to allow and tolerate negative emotion” (p. 215). (8)

So when your child is upset about something seemingly small, responding with empathy makes a difference! Over time, your empathy can help your child learn to regulate these emotions on their own.

Keep On Trying

Now that you know some of the benefits of empathy, you may be thinking, “Great. I know what I should be doing, but it’s just so hard!” Choosing to respond with compassion and understanding may not always be easy. And even the best parents fall short sometimes!

But as you keep on trying to respond with empathy, you may be helping your kids more than you know. So next time disaster strikes and your daughter has a tantrum, take a deep breath. Then do the best you can to respond with empathy. Maybe the next disaster won’t be such a big disaster after all.

For more information

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1. Empathy. (n.d.). In Merriam-Webster. Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/empathy

2. Gottman, J. (1997). Raising an emotionally intelligent child: The heart of parenting. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks.

3. Meltzoff, Andrew. (1999). Born to learn: What infants learn from watching us. The Role of Early Experience in Infant Development.

4. Richaud de Minzi, M. C. (2013). Children’s perception of parental empathy as a precursor of children’s empathy in middle and late childhood. Journal of Psychology, 147(6), 563-576.

5. Stern, J. A., Borelli, J. L., & Smiley, P. A. (2015). Assessing parental empathy: A role for empathy in child attachment. Attachment and Human Development, 17(1), 1-22.

6. McLeod, S. (2009). Attachment theory. Retrieved from https://www.simplypsychology.org/attachment.html

7. Brogaard, B. (2016, November 9). Parental attachment problems: Child neglect and its consequences. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-mysteries-love/201611/parental-attachment-problems

8. Paivio, S. C., & Laurent, C. (2001). Empathy and emotion regulation: Reprocessing memories of child abuse. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 57(2), 213-226.

*Picture retrieved from https://www.flickr.com/photos/bantam10/17919229369/in/photostream/

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