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Teaching Kids Empathy

written by: Amy M. • edited by: Amanda Grove • updated: 12/6/2013

Want your preschooler to experience great friendships, have success in school and express emotions in a healthy way? Of course you do! Empathy is a key ingredient in the recipe for happy, emotionally healthy children. Learn how to help your preschooler develop this important skill!

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    Emphasis On Empathy

    Teaching Young Children Empathy The words, “I know how you feel" spoken by an empathetic friend help anyone feel better. However, the concept of understanding another's emotions does not come naturally to everyone. Preschoolers, especially, tend to be concerned only with themselves, as they have limited understanding due to their stage of development.

    Every situation, whether it is disappointment felt at the store or frustration with sharing at childcare, can be a learning opportunity for preschoolers. As they learn to identify and express emotions, they will recognize them in others, develop empathy and relate well to their peers. As a parent, there are many ways you can teach your kids empathy and help them learn to express emotions.

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    Identifying and Expressing Emotions

    In order for your child to understand other people's emotions, they must first understand their own. Teaching your child about feelings doesn't have to be a deliberate lesson or be separate from your daily activities. Day-to-day situations provide the best opportunities for your child to develop emotionally and make real-life connections. If you make an effort to point out how your child seems to be feeling about a situation, you will help them become aware and build the vocabulary they need to express themselves.

    When your child is struggling with a new task try saying something like, "Your eyebrows are down and your mouth is frowning like this (make a frown). That must be hard to do. You look frustrated." By acknowledging facial expression and body language you are helping your child make connections. When your child can connect a feeling with the words that go with it, they will be able to understand emotions expressed by others. There are also many songs, games and activities that help young children identify and express feelings. A song I taught the children in my preschool classroom is a variation of "If You're Happy and You Know It."

    If you're sad and you know it, cry some tears "Boo-hoo" If you're mad and you know it tell a friend "I'm mad!"

    If you're excited and you know it do a dance (dance in place)... and so on.

    It's a fun song that you can easily sing at home and "tweak" if you feel the need.

    Teaching about feelings can be fun and rewarding for you and your child. As your child develops understanding of emotions in themselves and others they will grow in their ability to solve problems.

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    Problem Solving and Apologizing

    Problem solving skills play a large role in healthy social development at the preschool level. You will find that as your child gets better at solving problems, they naturally develop empathy and understanding toward their friends. According to the Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning, the key to teaching problem-solving skills is identifying the teachable moment. Just like adults, children are unable to learn or be rational when their emotions are running high. The times to teach social skills are prior to a disagreement while preparing for a play session or after your child's feelings have been acknowledged and they have calmed down.

    Problem solving skills can be a sort of mental toolbox that, with practice, your child will automatically access when disagreements arise. An important problem solving "tool" that will help your child develop a sense of empathy is knowing how to make a meaningful apology. Many parents encourage their children to say they are sorry and with a little prompting, apologizing becomes a valuable skill. If your child hurts someone's feelings, it's important they understand why they are apologizing. Encourage your child to say, "I'm sorry for (taking your toy, calling you a name, sticking out my tongue, etc.)" They can take it a step further by adding, "I know that made you (sad, angry, frustrated, etc.)" and "I will try not to do it again." These steps help your child understand other's feelings and take responsibility for their behavior.

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    Application

    You, as the parent, are your child's first and most influential teacher. This may seem intimidating and make you think, "But I'm no teacher, I didn't study child development." Relax and understand that you are a role model and teacher for your child just by being you. Conversations about feelings, role playing and creating "what-if" questions to get the wheels turning about emotions are all great strategies. Most importantly, though, model the behavior you want to see in your child. Demonstrate empathy by acknowledging and supporting your child's feelings. By doing so your child will feel secure with their own emotions and you will both experience the rewards of raising an empathetic child.

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    Resource

    Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning - Family Tools.