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Why it’s important to support the development of empathy in children

the development of empathy in children

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

– Maya Angelou

The development of empathy in children is crucial, because how we interact with others is one of the most important building blocks of our society, and each and every individual life. Without connection, and without being able to connect in healthy, positive ways, life becomes challenging to navigate, and the fabric of our society frays. 

Empathy can be viewed as the ability to understand the emotional reactions and experiences of others; the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, so to speak. While human beings are wired for connection, and have to keep connecting for survival, empathy is still a skill that can be and has to be taught to our children, and scaffolded throughout their lives. 

Why is the development of empathy in children important?

Apart from the fact that it helps them to cultivate healthy, strong and productive friendships, it also supports them in that lifelong secure relationships are built with empathy. With an empathetic and kind world view and approach towards others, children are also more open, tolerant and accepting in a diverse world. This opens them up to a wider variety of relationships, as well as a greater likelihood of fostering numerous supportive relationships throughout their lives. 

When children are kind and caring towards others, not only do their friends, family and teachers benefit, they do too! Studies have highlighted that children with higher levels of empathy are healthier, happier, have higher self-esteem, and learn with greater ease! (That’s not to say that those who struggle with learning, lack empathy, as a great many building blocks are involved in the process of learning). 

Empathetic interactions promote social harmony, as well as positive coping when it comes to conflict, while reducing the likelihood of bullying. 

What can parents and caregivers do to develop empathy in little ones? 

It all starts with a healthy, strong and secure parent-child connection. When little ones’ emotional buckets are filled, they have more space and capacity to start thinking about, recognizing and exploring what others might be feeling. 

Teaching children about feelings, especially naming feelings in everyday contexts, as well as raising awareness in children of facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language that might go along with particular feelings, will help them to start recognizing feelings in themselves, and others, priming them for empathy. 

Parental modelling has been identified as a key factor in children’s development of empathy. Model caring, nurturing and kind interactions, and add some narrative as you go along, pointing out what you, or others, are doing that is kind, and how it makes others feel. 

Praise your little one for any kind and caring words, actions or interactions! While they are not quite able to start placing themselves in someone else’s shoes before the age of four due to other developmental needs enjoying priority, it is worth praising them for any move in this direction, thereby reinforcing this behaviour. 

Caring and nurturing play is a wonderful way of teaching empathy. Playing with baby dolls, or parent and baby figures, or even pets, could be a great learning opportunity for little ones. Helping them to care for pets or plants and their environment is another wonderful way of showing them the impact their kind actions can have in a concrete way. 

Lastly books and stories can be a brilliant teaching tool, and help children to start understanding others’ feelings and experiences as it unfolds in a story. Parents or caregivers’ questions and discussions about stories can further deepen little ones’ understanding of what others may be feeling. 

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