Empathy is such an important skill to pass on to your little ones. Its development is linked to the social part of their brain and supports thoughtfulness and emotional intelligence. Empathy is what helps us to relate to other people and maintain strong relationships.
Lockdowns this year have also meant that your family may not have got the social practice they need. That's why we've listed these easy methods to practice empathy in your home.
1. Play 'label this'
'Validating' your child's grumpy behaviour may sound counter-intuitive. When your toddler is having a tantrum, you certainly don't want to encourage them.
One easy way to get started is by labelling your child's emotions. When they walk into the kitchen dragging their feet and folding their arms, begin by simply marking their reaction.
'You're breathing heavily and folding your arms. You seem angry'.
By 'labelling' their emotional cues, you can help them process their feelings and even begin a dialogue about it. It's a technique that's especially useful for the younger members of your family but can be helpful for anyone.
2. Start a 'kindness jar'
The kindness jar is the swear jars’ empathetic cousin.
Take an old jam jar or cut a slit in a cardboard box. Every time your child or another person does something kind, write it down and place it inside the jar. Continue this over time, and you'll have a collection of authentic, kind and thoughtful acts. You can even add a little reward for a certain number of kind acts to keep them interested.
The 'kindness' jar method encourages children to identify empathy in others. It's a great way to highlight good behaviour and influence positive modelling.
3. Imagination-based play
During the pandemic, is has become very challenging to find non-screen based activities to keep your family occupied.
Doll play is a great way to get them off the screens and using their imaginations. A recent study by Dr Sarah Gerson et al (2020) found that doll play can activate the region of the brain associated with social processing. This means imagination-based play can help develop crucial empathy skills. The study found that these skills are even being developed when playing alone, as children 'rehearse social interactions'.
Learn more about the results of this new study here.
4. Create an empathy map
An empathy map is a great way to help your children manage their own and other's emotions. Rather than reacting to an emotional circumstance, the empathy map is all about calm discussion.
To create your map, start by picking an emotion. Then, begin mapping out what you might say and do when you feel that emotion. You can do that with a large sheet of paper and a colourful set of pens.
For example, for 'sadness', you might write 'crying, frowning and crossed arms'.
The empathy map method is perfect for your slightly older children (aged 7-11). It can help them process more complex emotions in themselves and understand them in others.
To learn more about the empathy-building benefits of doll play, click here.