Empathy comes from the German word Einfühlung which means “feeling into.” When you empathize, you are stepping into another person’s shoes and experiencing that person’s feelings as if they were your own. Empathy includes a cognitive component (taking another’s perspective) and an emotional component (being able to experience another’s feelings).  Empathy then requires that you communicate your understanding of how you believe they are feeling to the other person.

Brene Brown adds another dimension; having a non-judgemental stance. Her Four Attributes of Empathy are:

  1. perspective-taking
  2. staying out of judgement
  3. recognizing emotions
  4. communicating our understanding of emotions

Seen as being made up of these social emotional skills, empathy becomes teachable. Perspective-taking, recognizing emotions and communicating our understanding are skills that we teach and practice daily with our children. Being able to stay out of judgement can be practiced through practicing mindfulness (more on that in later post!)

Empathy is one of the executive functions of the prefrontal cortex and we need access to our prefrontal cortex in order to be empathic. We need to feel calm so that the prefrontal cortex can engage. It is very difficult to feel empathy when you are angry. If we are feeling overwhelmed, fearful, angry or anxious, our amygdala is activated and we cannot feel empathic in that moment. The more we practice empathy and accessing our prefrontal cortex, the stronger those neural pathways become and the easier it becomes to experience empathy.

You can practice empathy, or the different skills that make up empathy, on a daily basis. The best way to encourage empathy in your child, is to practice empathy yourself. Role modelling is one of the strongest ways to teach empathy. Here are three other simple ideas to encourage empathy in your children:

  1. John Medina, author of Brain Rules and Brain Rules for Baby, talks about a game he used to play on the bus with his two sons. He would ask one son what he thought a particular person on the bus was feeling. He would then ask his other son for reasons why this person might be feeling this way. You can also play this game when picture reading books with your child. Ask them what they think a character is feeling – point out physical clues such as a downturned mouth, slouched shoulders, raised or furrowed eyebrows.
  2. Dr. Dan Siegel, author of The Whole-Brain Child, Brainstorm and more, encourages asking simple questions in everyday situations to have children practice taking other’s feelings into consideration. For example, asking a child “Why do you think that baby may be crying?” or “That girl seemed upset. What do you think might have happened that made her feel upset?”
  3. Roman Krznaric, author of Empathy, Why It Matters and How to Get It, has a new take the Golden Rule which he calls the Platinum Rule. The Platinum Rule is this: Do unto others and they would have you do unto them. The Platinum Rule takes into account the fact that everyone has different likes and dislikes, values, feelings and so on and that what I would like for myself is perhaps different than what you would like for yourself. Once a child knows the Platinum Rule, you can have conversations about if a situation calls for the Golden Rule or the Platinum Rule. For a video of Roman discussing this rule and how it can be used with children, watch here.

There are of course many more ways to build and foster empathy. What are some of the methods you use at home?