Empathy is one of the most important things an individual can have. Being able to relate, understand, and value other people is undoubtedly one of the most rudimentary lessons we teach our children.
After all, the golden rule that everyone’s parents taught them when growing up is: ‘Treat others as you would want to be treated.’
While the idea of our children getting along with others, and developing perspective is good in theory, it’s not an ideology that is just learned over night. Teaching your child the invaluable benefits and importance of empathy is something that parents have to work on over time.
Here is what Dr. Sadein had to say:
1. Be Kind to Yourself
Take every opportunity to model empathy and kindness, both in your interactions with the child and with third parties.
2. Seek Out Opportunities for Your Child to Practice Empathy and Kindness
Acknowledge it when they do practice empathy and kindness. This will amplify the neural patterns that generate their acts of kindness. Do not, however, provide material rewards for these behaviors, since extrinsic rewards interfere with intrinsic motivation.
3. Foster a Trusting Relationship With Your Child
The safer your child feels with you, the easier it will be for them to regain self-control during conflict.
4. Practice Mindfulness With Your Child
This increases their self-awareness and self-control, both emotionally and physiologically. As they understand how their bodies respond to emotion, their emotions become less frightening, and with practice they learn how to dampen negative emotional responses instead of escalating them.
5. Enjoy Reading Fiction With Your Child
Research shows that reading stories helps children to learn to understand and empathise with different perspectives. Watching TV doesn’t seem to have the same benefits.
Another important aspect of showing your child how to process negative emotions without becoming cruel is to teach them how to respond to cruelty. When you talk about cruelty, you first need to make your child feel safe from their own negative emotions.
Don’t punish or reward them. Instead, stay calm, clearly define the problem, and help them to reach a state where they are able to reflect on it. When they express negative feelings hurtfully, do not escalate the conflict, but simply give them a verbal label for what they’re experiencing. For instance, if they say, “I hate you and you’re never coming to my birthday party again!” you can respond calmly with, “It sounds like you’re feeling angry.”
After they’re calm, discuss the feelings of the victim to establish an empathic connection in your child’s mind. This will inhibit the intrinsic brain circuitry that could otherwise reward cruelty and activate the circuitry that rewards nurturing, protective behavior. The next step is to teach your child how to apologise meaningfully.
A meaningful apology requires not only that they acknowledge what they did wrong (self-awareness), but also that they understand why it was wrong (empathy), and they have a plan for how to make amends and change their behavior (self-regulation). When they apologise meaningfully and are forgiven, the child feels safe, connected, and in control, all of which reduces the likelihood of future cruelty.
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