We are hard-wired to pick up on other people’s emotions.
Babies who are only a few days old tend to cry when they hear another baby crying. (They don’t cry when they hear a recording of their own crying, so this isn’t just a reaction to noise.) If one preschooler starts crying about missing his mommy, other kids in the class may start crying, too. Young children also tend to pick up on their parents’ fears or irritability. In conversations, both adults and children quickly, and without realizing it, start to imitate the facial expression, posture, and speaking pace of their conversation partner. When we’re with someone who is sad or frustrated or excited, we tend to start feeling the same way.
But being able to “catch” another person’s emotions doesn’t necessarily lead to caring behavior. Kindness is learned. One study by Carolyn Zahn-Waxler and her colleagues shows that toddlers who are just over one-year old respond in caring ways to someone in distress less than one tenth of the time, but by the time they’re about two years of age, they respond in caring ways about half of the time.
In general, research shows that, from the preschool years through adolescence, children increase how often then help, share, or give to others. But as every parent knows, kids don’t always choose to behave in kind ways.
Children certainly learn about kindness from receiving it and from watching other people do it, but that’s often not enough. To help our children learn to be kind, we also need to address some of the barriers that get in the way of making kind choices.
Help Children Manage Their Own Emotions
To respond in caring ways to the emotions of others, children first need to be able to cope with their own feelings. Research by Nancy Eisenberg and her colleagues at Arizona State University shows that young children who become overwhelmed by their own feelings when they see someone in distress are less likely to try to help other people. It seems like their own upset crowds out their compassion.
When we comfort our children and teach them to comfort themselves, we help them develop enough “emotional space” to care about others.
- Talk about feelings. Talking about how your child is feeling makes those feelings seem more understandable and more manageable. Saying things like “You’re feeling frustrated because we have to wait” or “You’re sad that your toy broke” helps your child learn to put their feelings into words.
- Teach calming strategies. Encourage your child to use simple calming strategies like taking a deep breath, relaxing the body, or cuddling something soft. Practice these when your child is not upset. Having a plan of what to do helps kids learn to soothe themselves. Calming strategies only work early on, when feelings are small. If your child is already emotionally flooded in a full-blown tantrum, you just have to wait it out.
Address Empathy Blind Spots
Children of all ages are more likely to help friends than non-friends. In elementary school and beyond, they sometimes go further than that and decide that certain people’s feelings “don’t count.” These empathy blind spots may involve an unpopular child at school or a sibling. Empathy blind spots allow kids to make excuses for unkind behavior, such as “He’s annoying” or “She’s weird.”
The key to addressing empathy blind spots is to help your child imagine the other child’s feelings. With very young children, keep it simple. Just help them notice and label the other child’s feelings by saying “He/she is feeling ________ because ________.” With elementary age children and older, you can use more elaborate descriptions.
- Vividly describe others feelings. When you describe, as vividly as you can, what the other child might be feeling, you help your child put him- or herself in the other child’s shoes. Keep the focus on the other child, and avoid criticizing your child, because you want to tug at your child’s heartstrings rather than make your child feel defensive. You could say something like “That must have been very hard for her to have all the girls move away from her. I bet she was embarrassed that everyone could see that she had no one to sit with. She probably felt hurt and lonely, too. It hurts to be rejected! I know she shouldn’t have done that, but everyone makes mistakes. I imagine she felt so helpless, sitting there, all alone, because what could she do if everyone was turning away from her?”
- Draw connections with your child’s experiences. Seeing similarities can help kids break through empathy blind spots. It’s harder to dismiss someone they view as “like me.” Try to relate the other child’s feelings to something that your child has experienced. You could say something like “Remember when the older boys on the baseball team made fun of you when you were just starting baseball? You felt mad and embarrassed. You even wanted to quit baseball. That’s how your brother feels when you make fun of him for not knowing his math facts.”
Show Children They’re Capable of Helping
Another thing that can get in the way of kind behavior is distancing beliefs such as “There’s nothing I can do” or “It’s not my job to help.” One of the best ways of encouraging kind behavior is to help our children see that they can have a positive impact. For instance, research shows that elementary school children are more likely to donate money anonymously if adults explain how the donation will help, such as that poor children will feel happy to be able to buy food and toys, rather than if adults just say donating is a good thing to do.
- Point out positive impact. When your child does something kind, draw attention to how your child helped or made someone feel good. You could say, “Thank you for helping me put away the groceries! Because you helped, we got them away quickly!” or “That was kind of you to help your sister pick up the blocks, even though you didn’t play with them. She was feeling overwhelmed by the mess, and your help made the job easier. Did you notice how much happier she looked when you started helping?”
- Focus on making amends. All kids make mistakes and do unkind things. By focusing on ways to make amends, we help them get back on track in a kind direction. For instance, you could say, “Jeremy is sad because his arm is hurting. What can you do to make him feel better?” If your child doesn’t know, give two options. “You could tell him you’re sorry or get him some ice.”
- Volunteer together. Volunteering as a family is a great way of teaching kids to care about their broader community. Doing this regularly communicates important values to kids about the importance of service. With elementary age kids and older, you can talk about how even big world problems improve when lots of people do a little bit.
Teaching our kids to care is one of our most important jobs as parents. It takes time and lots of practice to learn kindness. When we show kindness by example and also address the barriers to kind action, we help our kids learn to make caring choices.
Have you seen examples of “empathy blind spots” with your child?
This article is for general educational purposes only. It does not constitute and should not substitute for individual professional advice, psychotherapy, or the provision of psychological services.