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Weekly Wellness #12 - The Importance of Empathy

Published: June 12, 2020 5:58 p.m.

With so much happening in the world right now, this is a particularly important time for all of us to treat each other with respect and compassion. We are more likely to do this when we have empathy for others.  Empathy involves the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

We experience empathy when we have the capacity to take another person’s perspective, and we value that perspective.  Feelings of empathy allow us to establish healthy relationships, and to act in prosocial ways. Unfortunately, it can be more difficult for us to feel empathy for others if we do not have a frame of reference for their experiences and struggles.

The good news is that we can increase the capacity for empathy in ourselves and others. Children learn empathy by experiencing it from us, and watching how we treat others. And, we can all develop more empathy by “trying on” other peoples’ perspectives and attempting to feel “with” them. 

“Sometimes all a person wants is an empathetic ear; all he or she needs is to talk it out. Just offering a listening ear and an understanding heart for his or her suffering can be a big comfort.”
― Roy T. Bennett

When we help a young person develop empathy they gain a sense of themselves as a caring and generous person, and it helps them feel good about themselves through helping others.  Here are some ways to support their development of empathy:

  • Empathize with your child/teen’s emotional experiences. We can do this by striving to understand and respect their individual personalities and being curious about their perspective on things.
  • Give them a chance of a “do-over” when they have been insensitive. Help them take the other person’s perspective, and discuss what they could do differently – now or in the future.  This is even more effective if we also catch ourselves being insensitive, and model a shift in thinking too!
  • Use conflict as an opportunity to practice perspective-taking. If it is a family disagreement, give each person a few minutes to share their perspective, and then have the others repeat back what they heard.  If they have a dilemma or a conflict with a peer, help them consider what the other person might be thinking or feeling.
  • Discuss and model empathy for others. For example, if someone is rude in public, we can say to our child that the person is a “jerk”, or we can wonder aloud what challenges that person might be facing. 
  • Learn the difference between offering empathy versus sympathy Watch the Brené Brown video on empathy.
  • Take a turn in their shoes. Try a simulation to experience what it is like for your family member(s) with learning and/or attention struggles:  through your child's eyes.  Talk to them about your experience.
  • Expand their horizons. Watch a movie about people with very different lives, and then discuss it as a family.  Check out movies that inspire empathy and 12 documentaries that will inspire kids to change the world.
  • Challenge your family to engage in random acts of kindness. Discuss the experience and perspective of someone you know (such as a neighbour or extended family member), and imagine what actions and/or words might make that person feel better.
  • Support their self-regulation. Help them recognize that they need to manage their own emotions in order to be able to feel empathy for others. Teach kids self-control   Help high school students gain self-control