Teaching empathy & compassion to preschoolers

Empathy is the precursor to compassion, and it’s only when we experience empathy that we can be compassionate. Parents are integral in teaching a culture of learning to respect others' feelings and helping young children to develop empathy.
Empathy is the precursor to compassion, and it’s only when we experience empathy that we can be compassionate.

Parents are integral in teaching a culture of learning to respect others' feelings and helping young children to develop empathy.

1. How important is it for children to be taught compassion?

Empathy is a vital skill. While we think of compassion as fundamental to our ability to be kind and charitable to the less fortunate, empathy is more important that that because it forms much of the basis of our social interactions.

It is by tuning into how another is feeling that we learn to moderate our behaviour. More specifically, it is by being aware of the feelings and reactions of others that we learn to behave in socially appropriate, beneficial ways.

For example, in young children, empathy comes in the form of not calling another a name that you would find hurtful.

2. How can parents contribute to a culture of learning to respect others feelings, or to develop empathy?

Formal programmes to teach empathy often start with efforts to help children learn to identify and describe their own emotions.

It is hard to understand how someone else might be feeling if you don’t really have a strong sense of the feelings you yourself experience, and if you can’t really articulate why you feel the way you do.

Understanding our own emotions allows us a foundation on which to understand or anticipate the emotions of others in similar circumstances, and to anticipate the impact of different circumstances on ourselves and others.
Parents hoping to nurture compassion and empathy should start by building emotional literacy in their children early on. This does not need to be done in a formal way, but through simple everyday things like acknowledging and talking about the emotion the child is having, and the emotions we ourselves are having over the course of the day.

For example, say something like “It looked to me like you were getting really frustrated when Lucy was snatching your doll.” to teach the child to acknowledge their experience and put a name to it.

Making how others feel a regular part of conversation is probably the second step to increasing empathy.

For example, asking your child how a friend felt when they got told off.

3. What practical things could parents do to teach these skills?

Building on your child’s growing understanding of the needs and experiences of others, it might be nice then to move things along from having an empathetic understanding to actually being compassionate in action. Parents can teach this by modelling compassionate behaviour.

So going to an animal shelter for example, provides a nice opportunity to talk through the experience of abandoned animals, while also providing a good way to act on the empathetic feelings or feelings of compassion that arise when you think about the experience of someone else. But it can be far less structured and planned.

For example, giving a mother with a crying infant your place ahead of her in a supermarket queue and explaining to the child why you thought that might be helpful would be a good way to model both empathy and compassionate action.

When you do see your child showing compassion in their own dealings, take the time to acknowledge their efforts by specifically articulating the compassionate act, lavishing praise and letting them know that you value these efforts.

For example, “I am so proud of you for going up to the new girl and inviting her to play with your group of friends. She must have been feeling a little lonely, and you really made an effort to make her comfortable. Good job!”

This article was written by Kidz Therapy - a private practice providing comprehensive cognitive, educational, social and emotional assessments and therapy for children.

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