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Building Empathy


Children are born with an innate ability to understand and feel what another person is experiencing. As parents, it is one of our many jobs to nurture and foster this ability to empathize.

Children are eager to please us and often want to get involved and help more. Fortunately, there are many opportunities that allow us to set a strong foundation to cultivate emphatic, considerate, kind and loving children. In a generation of entitled children, first and foremost, we must teach them awareness. How we treat and talk to one another can set the baseline for our children’s behavior. Being a role model and acting upon our observations leads our kids towards becoming the individuals we know they are capable of becoming.
You can start by:
  1. Noticing the person who seems to be in a rush at the grocery and letting them go in front of you.
  2. Explaining to your child when they set something down in a store where it doesn’t belong, that an employee then has to put it back rather than assisting a customer.
  3. Paying it forward. If someone is short on change, offer them the difference.

Awareness comes from affirmation, too.

Encouraging them by saying things like, “Visiting Grandma made her week. It warms my heart that you understand she often feels lonely and misses you.”
There are always opportunities for parents to turn the tables around for their children andcreate a fresh perspective and squash feelings of entitlement. It’s sort of like looking at the glass half full instead of half empty.When cutting my daughter’s hair, it didn’t turn out quite as she had envisioned, so you can imagine the emotions rising.
My response: “Think about Michelle right now. What would she give to have a lousy haircut?” Remembering her friend currently under going cancer treatment jolted her critical thinking and she immediately stopped thinking of herself. One day, my husband was irritated with the slow driver in front of him. Noticing his annoyance, I said aloud so the kids could hear,“We don’t know what the guy’s day has been like. Maybe he forgot to take his medicine? Maybe he just received bad news or lost his job?”


Creating a different perspective has shifted our entire family’s way of thinking and definitely made our children more empathetic.

Caring for something also fosters empathy and elicits accountability. For example, when being responsible for a pet, children begin to relate to the animal they are caring for, which stirs their imagination. My daughter has a bunny and one day, she proudly shared,“Mom, I just want you to know Winner has such a wonderful life! He gets to run around my room and a coolbunny hut to live in. Do you know how many bunnies are out in the desert running from coyotes?” The compassion and responsibility she had taken on was directed through her heart, and to affirm her point I told her she was a phenomenal caregiver and how Winner is one lucky bunny.
Validating our children when they do express empathy is also extremely important.
I was so impressed when my son’s teammate used his own experience to show empathy for another boy,who was benched at the game. He said he felt bad for him and was sorry hedidn’t get to play. I used this moment to validate his‘strong heart’and pointed out that hehad a gift of being able to sympathize and understand others emotions.
I told him,“Having empathy will take you far in this world as a friend, college student, employee,boss and father.”Validation through affirmation can be so rewarding to both you and your child. Jumping into doom, gloom and jealousy never makes any situation better. However, affirming our children’s actions fill them up. It encourages them to continue jumping in others’ shoes.
Lastly, in building empathy, consider getting your hands dirty.

Although it is much easier to write a check, volunteering generates the warm feeling of giving. What we receive in return is the feeling of achievement accompanied with a fulfilled heart. By exposing our children to diversity and different cultures it adds to their touching experiences and emotional growth. Belonging to a community of faith is a great way to become involved. It helps our children understand that everyone is different and we all have our own challenges. In the end, when we approach things with empathy, we create a gentler, kinder world to live in.

By//Stacey Bruen, MC, NCC, LPC
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