creating a more caring world; a guide for parents & teachers in cultivating empathy in our children.
In the book Building Emotional Intelligence, Linda Lantieri references the growing body of research that suggests that when a child is supported in developing pro-social and emotional skills early in life, that there are better outcomes for that child’s long-term health and well-being. Teaching children how to connect with their inner world supports the development of self-awareness, but it also helps lay the foundation for understanding the interplay between themselves and others. Every child is born with the capacity to be empathetic, but empathy is a skill that requires nurturing in order to develop.
As an adult in a child’s life, you can help foster the development of empathy by supporting them in building emotional awareness and familiarizing them with the thoughts and feelings of others. Dr. Daniel Siegel shares in his book The Whole-Brain Child that a child’s ability to be reflective of their own experiences and those of others helps builds resiliency and connection.
“Empathy allows us to keep in mind that each of us is not only a ‘me’ but part of an interconnected ‘we.’
Recognizing this combination helps produce an integrated self, which leads not only towards caring for others
but also towards living a life full of meaning, connection and belonging to a larger whole.” - Dr. Daniel Siegel
THREE KINDS OF EMPATHY (Adapted from the work of Daniel Goleman)
We can teach children to develop and regulate empathy, just as we do other emotions. That is, if we only cultivate emotional empathy “putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes” and feeling what they feel, we run the risk of truly experiencing the heartache, pain and distress of others. Neuroscience research suggests that when a person is emotionally empathizing with another person, their own brain is activated in very similar circuits as the brain of the person with whom they’re empathizing. This can result in higher “fight-or-flight” physiological responses and if we share the emotional suffering of others too often we run the risk of elevated stress response activation. Solely mirroring the emotional state of another person isn’t all that helpful, empathetic concern however is a good antidote. It allows us to connect to someone else's suffering but with equanimity and having the drive to want to help. This sort of compassion activates the area of the brain associated with motivation and reward.
In my work with children I’ve found that action can be very powerful. When we allow children to do something with their feelings it can be very empowering. We don’t negate feelings; we bring mindful awareness to our thoughts and feelings and validate what ever it is we are experiencing in the moment then we can take action to care for our feelings and the feelings of others.
10 STRATEGIES FOR CULTIVATING EMPATHY IN CHILDREN
“When you begin to touch your heart or let your heart be touched, you begin to discover that it's bottomless,
that it doesn't have any resolution, that this heart is huge, vast, and limitless.
You begin to discover how much warmth and gentleness is there,
as well as how much space.” - Pema Chödrön
Last year I had the opportunity to spend a week in meditation with two-hundred individuals on the lovely grounds of Omega Institute learning from esteemed teacher, Jon Kabat Zinn. Each sitting practice started with the following invitation, “lay out your welcome mat and fall madly in love with yourself.” This message was a reminder that we have a choice in how we connect with ourselves in each moment. And just like anything we want to develop, learning to greet oneself with an attitude of love and care takes practice. Jon’s invitation, was a lesson in how we move towards extending the same grace out into the world. His teachings that week focused on healing ourselves and the world through mindfulness, reminding us that the work starts within. When we plant the seed for deep and compassionate connection with ourselves we begin to erase the illusion of separation. We are reminded that all things are interconnected. We can awaken to a kinder and wiser relationship with ourselves, one another and with the world.
“When people go within and connect with themselves, they realize they are connected to the universe
and they are connected to all living things.” -Armand Dimele
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Jen Rapanos, LMSW, RCYT is a child and adolescent psychotherapist working in private practice. She is the owner of Well-Bean, LLC committed to programs and services that foster the emotional and mental well-being of youth. www.wellbeankidsyoga.com