Head of Counselling & Wellbeing
Caring as an everyday experience
The word “empathy” is one we are all very familiar with. It is a behaviour and thought style that we are told should be cultivated and nurtured, important for inner peace and happiness, for building positive relationships and to generally be a good, successful and happy person. And best of all, it is a characteristic that can be learned and taught, and it’s never too late to start valuing others and showing compassion.
Empathy is sometimes mistaken for sympathy, but the two are different. Sympathy is when one feels for another person, whereas empathy is to be able to understand and feel what the other is going through. It is literally being able to walk in the other’s shoes, and support or help them in their time of need.
Empathy can be cultivated through simple teaching strategies, that we can put in place in everyday moments:
Model what you preach – as always, the first step is to walk the walk. The most effective moments come when the adult is upset or irritated and manages to acknowledge the mood, and show kindness and sensitivity. This reinforces the idea that even when you are disappointed, hurt or angry, it’s important to see the whole picture, including the other’s point of view. This helps children learn how to regulate their own emotions and reactions.
Don’t be shy to discuss emotions – it’s important for children to learn from an early age that emotions are real and should be acknowledged. Talking openly about how they feel, what they think is healthy and will allow them to learn how to self-regulate and respond in an appropriate way to events, in learning how to connect thoughts, emotions and behaviours. Don’t be shy to bring up the difficult stuff, help to identify and name their feelings, to know what they are dealing with. Getting teenagers, especially to share may be at times challenging, but if they know that they are safe, and free to express themselves without being judged they are more likely to be able to learn from the situation.
Provide opportunities to help – encourage children to help and support others. It doesn’t always have to be about being involved in larger charitable experiences. It could be something like helping a friend or sibling with their work, helping in the home, keeping an elder company. Teach them to offer their help, without be asked.
Discuss world and community events – no child is too young to be heard. All opinions matter, and that is also what they should be taught, to listen to everyone, and to respect everyone’s ideas. A practical way to do this is to allow discussion on events happening in their world, and showing consideration for their ideas, and guiding them to show consideration of others’. It is also a way for children to learn about the diversity of people and cultures they will come across as they get older, and to how to navigate through in a healthy way
Acknowledge them when they have shown empathy – positive reinforcement is key in encouraging any healthy behaviour or characteristic to become entrenched. However, remember it’s not about rewards, kindness shouldn’t be associated with getting something back. It’s about praise, and also getting them to understand the value of a kind act, or being empathetic. And this can be done by pointing out that feeling good comes from doing good.