While many of us are familiar with the concept of empathy, perhaps we have a less firm understanding of what it means to apply it to the practice of raising our children. In psychological literature, empathy is defined as the ability to 'feel' the experience of someone else, or to have the capacity to relate to and understand one another as the result of a shared experience. In my work as a child- and family-focused practitioner, there is a common strategy I use to promote the practice of empathy in my parent-focused sessions. I regularly encourage parents to think back to a time when they were their child's age and experienced struggles or challenges similar to what they might be managing. Despite the differences that will exist as a result of contextual factors orgenerational gaps, parents are typically able to access a moment from their upbringing that aligns with their child's experience. When parents are capable of relating their own experience to that of their child's, we often find that it leads to more informed and supportive parenting intervention approaches.
What the research says
Childhood development experts and researchers indicate that when we respond to our children in an empathic manner, through the use of emotionally supportive language and attunement, we can in turn teach them to become more thoughtful, caring, and considerate individuals from an early age. There is a 2013 study by Dr. Celia Brownell and her colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh (US), aimed at measuring the capacity for sharing and helping behavior in toddlers. They found when parents facilitated dialogue with their children that encouraged reflection on both their own emotional experiences and the emotional experiences of others, the children were more likely to demonstrate altruistic helping and sharing behaviors towards their same-aged peers. The authors go on to note that despite not yet having a firm grasp of the moral implications of their altruistic behavior, toddlers can develop these abilities purely as the result of having parents who both demonstrate and encourage empathic behavior and reflection in their children. To put it simply: when we are emotionally kind to our children, they will be emotionally kind to others.
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Tips for building empathetic connections with our children
1. Frequently utilize your emotional vocabulary
Emotions begin as sensory experiences in the body, and children who have a firm grasp on the words that we use to describe these experiences are better able to self-regulate and manage their feelings. As a parent, you can help with this by frequently acknowledging and voicing both the emotions that you feel as well as the emotions that you observe in your child.
2. Don't shy away from serious topics
Empathy occurs on both micro and macro levels. This means that we observe it not only in how we treat one another, but also in how our greater society operates. Having age-appropriate conversations with our children regarding what's happening in the world will enhance their abilities to experience compassion and foster caring relationships.
3. Encourage cooperative play and problem solving from a young age
Empathy—both our ability to experience it and express it—is built primarily in the context of interpersonal relationships. As early as the toddler years, provide your child with multiple opportunities to be involved in cooperative play activities with same-aged children. When disruptions inevitably occur in the play, modeling and encouraging our children to talk through their disagreements with one another will help develop their emotional awareness.
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Dr. Balfanz is the Senior Clinical Psychologist at American Medical Center, a comprehensive medical and mental health service clinic for children, adolescents, adults and families living in Shanghai. For more information on clinic services, contact Dr. Balfanz at: firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website at: www.drnatebalfanz.com