The definition of empathy can really be as simple or as scientifically and neuro-psychologically difficult as a specific audience needs it to be. Empathy is extremely desirable in all environments including and especially in families. Simply put, empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes – to try to really understand, feel, and genuinely respond to what someone else is feeling and experiencing. When empathy has taken root and is flourishing in our homes and communities, it is then that safe, secure, and fulfilling relationships are created and healthy humans grow and thrive.
Mary Gordon who created the school-based “Roots of Empathy” program believes that the home is where empathy begins and that the world can be changed “child by child”. There are many ways that parents and caregivers can instill this essential quality beginning at infancy.
Below are just a few ways to foster empathy:
Secure and Healthy Attachments
Attachments occur throughout the lifespan – even in utero. For infants, that looks like distraction-free attention, physical connections including hugs, cuddling, responding to cues and consistently meeting basic needs. As children grow, the previous list remains the same with the addition of time to play, create, learn, and make many meaningful memories. The parent/caregiver relationship is the first relationship a child has and is the relationship that future relationships will be modeled and evaluated after.
Emotional Awareness and Regulation
In order to be able to empathize with others, children must be able to identify, name, and regulate their own emotions. Parents and caregivers can help by observing their children and recognizing and naming emotions as they occur including the identification of what caused the feeling and problem-solving as necessary. Practicing emotion regulation skills such as deep breathing, distraction, mindfulness, and other coping techniques can be something the whole family can do together – in fun and memory-building ways.
We all have the need to be seen, heard, and known no matter what the age. Parents and caregivers can promote effective communication skills by giving distraction-free attention. Reflective listening encourages listening to hear and understand rather than just to respond. In addition, assertive communication which follows the formula “I feel (insert feeling), when (insert situation), could you (insert request)” is an empowering way to express needs and make requests.
Practicing Empathy in the Home
The home is the perfect place to practice showing empathy to others. One way to encourage this is by creating time for family members to share feelings, provide and receive support, and brainstorm ways to solve problems. Parents and caregivers have an important and unique position to provide real-life examples of empathy in actions, responses to family members, and interactions with others which are observed by or relayed to children.
Opportunities for Service
Serving others outside of the home provides opportunities to practice and bring empathy into the community. Volunteerism increases opportunities to observe and understand the uniqueness of each individual situation.
The statement “empathy is caught, not taught” from Mary Gordon provides the insight that parents and caregivers need to not only speak about empathy to children, but live and continue to grow it within themselves and provide meaningful and purposeful opportunities for children to do the same.
Gordon, M. (2009). Roots of empathy: Changing the world child by child. The Experiment, LLC