Teaching Empathy

Dr. Dave just wrote a post about mirror neurons, exploring our built-in capacity to grasp the minds and experiences of others by simulating them in our brains. While he focused on the relationship between media violence and mirror neurons in that post, he also shared that mirror neurons are the basis for empathy – the critical ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes.

While we might be born into the world hard wired with the capacity for empathetic responses, it takes loving relationships and plenty of learning to leverage these mirror neurons for building empathy.

How do we go about teaching empathy?

  • Teaching empathy starts in the first years of your child’s life by being an attuned, attentive and responsive parent. Children that feel safe and secure are more sensitive to others’ emotional needs.
  • Build your children’s emotional literacy by acknowledging and helping them name their emotions. Children’s capacity to articulate their own feelings influences how much they feel for others
  • Stay actively involved in your child’s life and be available for one-on-one time. Try screen free dinners, special outings, or informal evening check-ins.
  • Ask your child to put themselves in someone else’s shoes. Story books are especially helpful in teaching empathy and sparking these important conversations. “Have you ever been in a situation like Frances? What did you do? How do you think Frances felt? How did you feel?”
  • Acknowledge and praise kind, sensitive, and altruistic behavior. Respond to negative behavior by asking your child to recognize the emotional consequences of their behavior. “How do you think that made your brother feel?” “How would you feel if someone had done that to you?”
  • Reduce exposure to cruel, violent or insensitive media. Children’s mirror neurons are hard at work while they interact with digital media. Choose positive programs and games that help build empathy and encourage prosocial behavior.
  • Set loving limits and consequences based on respect and responsibility. This will help children understand that their own wants and desires have to be negotiated in relationship to other people with different experiences and emotions.

I’d love to hear ways that you teach your child empathy!