Empathy for Kids
Empathy is the ability to be aware of the feelings of others and imagine what it might be like to be in their position. It’s commonly metaphorized as "walking a mile in someone else's shoes." Children are super perceptive of their surroundings and the emotions of people around them, as they are constantly surveying facial cues from their parents to interpret and understand a situation, making them natural empathizers.
Even though empathy comes easy to children, it is still a skill which needs to be practiced—evolving with different experiences and situations—to help children develop positive relationships with others and themselves. Here are some simple activities to help evoke empathy in your kids.
I SPY . . . A SAD EYE
Usually played during a car ride or while waiting in a long line, I Spy is one of those classic games which children love to play. The game is more than just a time passer though; it hones skills of perception and surveying the situation or environment. The same game can be applied to the perception of emotion. Rather than an object which looks blue, can they spot a person who looks blue? And if so, what makes them "blue"? Do they spot a happy child? Can they find a smile? A frown? A person who is lonely or may need a hug? Can they draw a picture which has different emotions in it (whether it be a sad tree or a happy dog) and have the parent or sibling find it (or vice-versa)? Have them explain their drawing. Ask questions like: What makes this tree sad? Did they not get enough sun? Does it not like its leaves? or Are other trees making fun of it? A similar activity can be performed in an art gallery or museum while viewing a piece of art. Ask the child what emotion they feel from the art and why (such as the sunset making them happy, or all the red leaving them feeling angry).
This is a classic party or camp game that’s also a great teaching tool for evoking emotion. To play emotional charades, take turns acting out emotions and guessing what feeling is being portrayed. After a player has guessed correctly, you can also discuss the emotion with questions like:
- When do you feel sad?
- What helps you feel better when you’re sad?
- How can we help someone else when they’re feeling sad?
Teaching emotions through play is an important way to develop empathy in children. Games and activities can help children learn to express and understand complex feelings. To make the game more challenging, have kids choose an “emotion” card together with an animal card to act out (e.g., "sad elephant" or "angry dragon").
“Teaching emotions through play is an important way to develop empathy in children. Games and activities can help children learn to express and understand complex feelings.”
EMPATHY IN ACTION
Ready, set, action! Acting or stepping into the role of another person, whether in an arts camp or as part of a school play, is a great way to cultivate empathy, just like playing pretend helps young children develop understanding and compassion for others. This may sound similar to playing charades (which is a common acting technique); however, acting involves not only emoting as your character, but also listening and responding to other actors in the scene. Acting is a dynamic process of surveying and responding—a key component of empathy.
HONESTY IN THE HOME
Kids learn best by example; our actions at home are the best lessons of empathy. Are you honest with your feelings? How do you communicate them to others, including your children? We don't want to involve kids with adult problems, nor divulge every inner thought and feeling, but it's important to be honest and open with your children. If you are sad, and they see you sad, be truthful about it. Then discuss the emotion, the trigger, and other possible reactions. This process develops cognitive awareness around healthy emotions and honest communication.
All of the above activities have focused on perception and awareness, identifying the emotion, what it looks like, and what situations caused it. Being able to recognize and emit emotion is just part of developing empathy. Other key components are compassionate caring and contributing to the community. How can you serve the community? It can be done through volunteering, hosting a group mediation or yoga class, going for a walk and picking up trash, or creating a lending library or food pantry. Any activity which helps elevate the collective mood of the community is a hands-on lesson in empathy.
The beauty of empathy is the ability to connect to others on an emotional level. This is a universal truth of empathy—we try to feel what another person is feeling—and that acts as our internal consciousness, to guide us. In our technological age, it’s harder to cultivate empathy. We are disconnected from those we are communicating with and are unable to read their emotions through a still screen or disjointed texts. This is why it’s really important to engage socially in person (or via video), or step away from the screen and connect to nature as a way to reset and ground yourself. Immersing yourself in things like nature, art, music, dance, and reading, are powerful ways to connect to emotion, enhancing empathy. The more we connect to our own emotions (whether through activities or art), the more we can understand the emotions of others, and the more empathetic we become.