Teaching Empathy

Teaching empathy in your home has tremendous implications for your family. Children who are empathic have greater self-awareness, emotional intelligence, self-soothing capacities and overall social skills than children who do not.

Empathy in short, is an ability to identify and respond to feelings- one’s own, or another’s. Sometimes, people mix up empathy with sympathy but empathy has greater practical implications. Sympathy is simply acknowledging something celebratory or sad, where as empathy requires a greater personal connection.

To begin teaching your children empathic skills, it’s important to check in with yourself and survey your own beliefs about feelings. In this post, I’ll list out some of the harmful ways we’ve come to view feelings, and how, in turn, this may affect our parenting style. Don’t worry! This isn’t the blame game. All of us fall into one or all of these camps at some point or another.

Feelings Just Aren’t That Important

Some people believe that feelings are useless. They don’t produce anything. They are unpredictable and can be cause for great disruption. What’s the point? I would argue that feelings are good gauges of our overall well-being. Suppressing a strong feeling is no different than suppressing a core part of your identity. Feelings cue us in to relationship problems, they help establish greater connection with others, and can be the impetus for much creativity. Furthermore, feelings are just a part of being human. No matter how rational you might be, your logic doesn’t preclude you from feeling. If we pay no attention to our feelings, we end up hurting and alienating people.

Feelings Have Value Judgments

Emotions are different and I would teach my clients that they aren’t bad or good they just are. Responses to feelings are the choices we make and those can be labeled bad or good. The initial feeling, though? It just is. Many people, especially women, have a difficult time thinking anger is valid. I shouldn’t be angry! Many women often tell themselves. I should just let it go. If anger pops up often for you, pay attention! Don’t inadvertently shame yourself by shaming your emotional experience. As we mentioned earlier, feelings cue you into the state of things. Listen to your feelings and decide how it needs to be addressed. Some folks also have issue with sadness, “Don’t be sad!” they tell themselves and their families. “We need to be happy!” Again, this sends a harmful message. “Sadness is not allowed, when things are sad, things are bad.” If you fall in this camp, you have likely punished your child (or yourself) for that matter, for publicly displaying anger, sadness or some other uncomfortable emotion.

My Feelings are Reality

Your feelings help shape your reality and your perception. Your perception is just one. Sometimes, our feelings consume us and we begin to see reality only through the lens of our sadness or anger. Remember that feelings don’t need to dictate our world or the worlds of our children. Just because someone feels angry doesn’t mean EVEYRTHING is wrong. Just because someone feels sad doesn’t mean EVERYTHING is hopeless. Pay attention to your feelings, but don’t elevate them too much, either.

Feelings are Private

Some people believe that feeling should just be coped with alone and not shared. Similar to the folks who believe that feelings don’t matter, when feelings are an overly private matter their significance is just minimized. Many children who were told to cope or experience feelings privately come to learn as adults that feelings are not as important.

What camp or style do you fall into? Some people identify with more than one. Whatever the case, I’d encourage you to move towards feeling acceptance as your improve your empathy skills. Being by acknowledging your feelings regularly. For example, after reading this article about feelings, I feel _____________________. Are you irritated, bored, critical or skeptical? Whatever it is, acknowledge it and let it be!

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