How to Teach Your Child Empathy

Most parents #1 fear: raising an asshole. Often when we try to teach our children empathy by pointing out others’ pain, by having them apologize for things they aren’t sorry for, by lecturing them about hurting others, etc,…they smirk, they laugh, they say “I don’t care”, refuse to apologize…well now we’re really panicked. If this is your kid, I want you to take a deep breath, because there’s nothing wrong with them. You are not raising an asshole. You’re just not teaching right.

There are two things you need to know about children in early childhood.

1) Children are ego-centric

Ego-centric means they don’t give a fuck about anybody but themselves. They’re self-centred. This isn’t a character flaw, it’s a developmental stage that is totally normal and necessary- and it begins to wane around 5 ½ – 6 years old. Their brain is concerned first and foremost with themselves and the impact their actions and the actions of others have on them.

2) Children learn through observation and first-hand experience.

We talked about observation quite a bit last week, so if you want to learn more about why observation is so important for young children, check out this blog post. Children do not learn through second or third-hand experience. In other words: children have to directly experience something, in order to learn it. Telling them things is useless and a waste of breath. Often parents will say ‘I told them they’d get hurt!’ or ‘I told them this would be ruined! And they didn’t believe me!’ Yeah, because you might as well talk to a brick wall rather than try to teach a young child something through talking about it. It’s not that they don’t believe you, it’s that because they’re egocentric, they don’t have the ability to put themselves in your shoes and use your second-hand account to inform their first-hand experiences, it’s just a developmental occasion that just hasn’t happened yet

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Trying to teach a child about empathy by talking about it is absolutely useless. 

This is why you’ll often see parents say things like “well to get her to stop biting, I bit her and she never bit again.” Yes, that does give them first-hand experience…however that’s like trying to teach a child not to hit others by spanking them. There are absolutely zero situations where it’s acceptable to intentionally hurt a child to make your point. By doing so you are also giving them the experience that there are situations where someone pisses you off and it’s acceptable to attack them, and that is not true. There are zero justifications for intentionally harming a child. None.

Instead we can give children first hand experience of being empathetic, and achieve the same result! Children learn to be empathetic by being empathised with. This is hard because most parents don’t understand the difference between empathy and sympathy, so they actually teach their child to sympathize, which does not achieve the same outcome. Empathy is to feel the other person’s feelings: to have pain in your own arm when someone else gets bitten, to feel heartbroken when your friend’s dog dies even though you didn’t know their dog. Empathy means to put yourself in other people’s shoes. 

Sympathy means to understand that someone else is hurting, but not to feel that emotion yourself. What that difference might sound like in an adult context is when you see your child bite it and scrape their knee. If you’re empathizing you’re going to show (through actions) that you feel their pain. You’re going to be very ginger with their boo boo, warn them when you put the disinfectant that it’s going to sting and cringe with them when it stings and help them breathe through it. You’re going to kiss it and hug them and give them very tangible comfort. Sympathy on the other hand would sound like “Ouch, yeah that looks like it hurts. Okay, well let’s clean it out and you can go back to playing. Why are you crying? It’s just a little scrape, I know the disinfectant hurts, I’m almost done. Here, kiss kiss, all better off you go!” 

Can you feel the difference between those two? The first one you’re accepting their emotional expression and sharing in it because their pain is your pain. The second you know cerebrally that it hurts and it sucks, but you don’t feel it yourself. You validate without feeling the emotions yourself. It’s a very different experience to be sympathized with vs empathize with. Most of what parents do is sympathy. And then we wonder why our child will hit another kid or bite another kid and then be like “yeah it hurt but it’s over now!” It’s very difficult to put yourself in someone else’s shoes if you’ve never had someone step into yours. Or if that happens very infrequently. The funny thing is, when our kids hurt someone else, we’re usually empathizing with the hurt child or their parents, but showing sympathy to our own child.

You have got to model putting yourself in your child’s shoes and understanding their actions from their perspective. 

Showing them empathy when they get hurt, showing empathy for then when we hurt them! When I was in early intervention I’d often see adults literally mow a child over and go “oh whoops, sorry! Next time get out of the way! Why are you crying, I just bumped into you?” and then literally within an hour that same child would bowl a peer over and go “oops!” and walk away like nothing happened. Vs if an adult bumped into a child and got down on their level, gave them a hug, rubbed where they hit them and said “Ohhh, ouch. I’m sorry, I didn’t see you there and bumped you. Where does it hurt? There? Does rubbing it help or do you need ice? You’re okay? Oh good. I’ll watch where I’m going better next time.” A child who had that experience would bump into someone and quickly apologise, hug them, offer a lovey or ice pack, and sit with their friend until they felt better. 

Modelling is the most powerful form of instruction that we have because it gives the child the emotional experience to reference when they do something similar. Seeing you empathize with some other kid is not a first-hand experience. They have to experience it. They have to feel what it feels like in order to be able to recreate that empathetic experience for others. It’s not something you can talk about! Emotions and language live in totally separate parts of our brain: language is up in our neocortex, emotions are in our limbic system. Young children’s neocortex are still in the early stages of construction, so trying to use an underdeveloped part of their brain to inform another fully developed part of their brain doesn’t work. 

If you’ve been hanging around the MudRoom for any length of time you’re probably sick of hearing about this, but if you don’t understand the basics of how your child’s brain develops then you can easily get wild inappropriate expectations, which leads to getting incredibly frustrated as parents when we’re trying to teach our kids these important lessons and it just. doesn’t. stick. Which we then take to mean that either we’re a shit parent, or our child is a demon. Neither of that is true, you’re just trying to teach a child the way you’d teach an adult and that doesn’t work. 

This is why in ParentAbility, the first thing I do with you is teach you about brain development. Without that background knowledge, none of the other stuff we do in Uncommon Sense Parenting makes sense! That’s why we call it Uncommon Sense Parenting, because MOST PEOPLE DON’T KNOW THIS STUFF! 

I would love to be able to call it common sense, but it’s not. Most of the common knowledge is just not accurate to how we actually learn and grow and develop as humans! Once you know the basics, parenting gets SO MUCH EASIER because you’re making decisions and using strategies that work WITH their brain rather than against it. And those strategies aren’t difficult or complicated, they’re just intentional. If your child is struggling to empathize with others, ask yourself, have I modelled empathy for them, or do I mainly sympathize? How can I show them how to react when you hurt someone? How can I show them more frequently that I feel what they feel? 

While this doesn’t have to be complicated, it’s usually super simple (that doesn’t mean easy). Often we don’t feel what they’re feeling. We struggle to put ourselves in their shoes. Which, again, is far easier to do when you understand the brain development. That’s why my 30 second Instagram Reel explaining the Limbic Leap™  went viral! Because it gave parents a frame of reference for how their 4 year old is feeling, which makes it far easier to react empathetically.

I hope that made sense. Empathy’s a really hard thing to talk about for that reason that it is an emotional experience and words really can’t do it justice. If you want to learn more about ParentAbility and how we use all this information in Uncommon Sense Parenting, come and join us! We will be opening the ParentAbility program back up again soon! This is the last week of April, which means we’re coming up on summer y’all and there is NO BETTER TIME to start ParentAbility than during the summer when you have a lot more control over your child’s routine, you have a lot more opportunities for regulation and gross motor activity, and you can get set up and get your kids ready for the emotional rollercoaster that is September.

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About Allana

Hi, I’m Allana. I teach parents of toddlers and preschoolers why their children are misbehaving and what to do about it without yelling, shaming, or using time-outs. When not teaching parents about behaviour you can generally find me chasing around my two boys, reading cheesy romance novels, or hanging out with my own parents.

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