By Terry Sears, LCSW

It is easy to lose sight about what truly matters in the blur of our fast-paced world, full of technology and isolation, but helping our children to become caring and responsible young adults should be a priority for every parent and caregiver.

At its core, empathy is simply defined as understanding how someone else feels, but its true meaning goes far deeper and has the power to change the world.  By shifting our focus and perspective from our own wants, needs and/or desires to the inner pain, struggle, and triumphs of others we encounter, we gain joy and wisdom that cannot be found or bought anywhere else.  “Walking in someone else’s shoes” symbolizes a desire to experience the thoughts and emotions of another.  Rather than judging others, we seek to understand, to find compassion and to encourage, to accept others for who they are and to appreciate the unique gifts they have to offer.

As parents, we want our children to be successful, to achieve their dreams, to have abundance, happiness, and hope.  At times, such goals have caused us to promote competition and create a single focus with our eye on the “prize” by conquering anything or anyone in the path.  In a desire to connect with their children, parents mistakenly replace conversations and cherished memories with electronics, fashion trends and desired objects. But imagine what kinds of world could we create if we took the time to teach our children how to connect at a deeper level with others, which also would allow them to truly understand and appreciate themselves.  Empathy then becomes a much greater prize and could begin to heal what is broken in the world today.

Give The Experience Of Empathy

Although empathy seems elusive, there are many ways parents can encourage and model empathy daily. 

• The first step to teach empathy is to model it with your children by slowing down the fast-paced world around you to actually notice what matters to them, to listen to their true heart’s desires and to experience their pain and joy through their eyes.  Too often, we jump in with advice or perceived words of wisdom that only serve to close the bridge to new discovery and understanding.  

• Taking a genuine interest in their hobbies and unique strengths and empowering them to pursue their life’s passion instead of a paycheck is a priceless gift and lesson.  Ask them about their daily “highs and lows” so that they will reach out when they need to and know that there is always a foundation of love to return to. 

• To feel empathy for others, one must first feel valued and understood and then seek to understand. Make them a priority by shutting off your cell phone, turning off the television and laptop and truly being in the moment with them.

• A key component of empathy is understanding emotions.  Our children’s ability to identify and regulate their own emotions and to understand the connections between thoughts, feelings and choices is essential.  Without such skills, their ability to have empathy for others is blocked. Teaching them valuable regulating skills such as deep breathing, muscle tensing and relaxation, meditation and mindfulness will allow them to truly connect with and understand themselves and others.  Being able to interact with others in a loving and compassionate way and resolving differences and conflict through compromise and conversation are skills that will serve them well throughout the rest of their lives.  

• Conduct family meetings to discuss concerns, challenges, and creative ideas.  Practice truly “hearing” others’ thoughts, ideas and perspectives by utilizing fun games and activities to assess their level of skills over time.

Teaching Through Example

Becoming an example of empathy involves how we, as parents and teachers, treat others we encounter along the journey.  This can include simple things like noticing that a server at a restaurant is having a hard shift and encouraging them and validating their experience and feelings while trying to bring a smile to their day.  We can teach fear and judgment, or welcome new friends and neighbors who are different but just as special as we are.  Invite someone new to a holiday dinner or choose to volunteer as a family instead of preparing a fancy meal at home.  Encourage children to write cards or draw pictures for members of the military, the elderly or pediatric cancer patients to lift their spirits and renew their sense of hope.  The gifts they will receive in such acts far exceed any trinket that can be purchased online. 

We can own our mistakes and model forgiveness and compassion instead of promoting revenge and hatred.  We can educate our children to understand that they and we are human and will stumble and doubt and lose faith when times are tough.  We will all make mistakes along our path to peace and purpose, but we can focus on the lessons that life presents to us and always try to leave the stops along the journey better than we found them.  

Be an advocate of personal reflection and self-care.  Building in moments of mindfulness, stillness and peace can counter the pressures and temptations of life that can become overwhelming at times.  Plan a family hike to notice fall foliage, listen to some soothing music together at the end of a long day and leave little notes of encouragement wherever you can.  Kids may act as though they are too cool or too grown up for such things, but at the core of their essence, they need those experiences to truly survive and flourish. 

We must instill core values of caring and compassion, of acceptance and inclusion.  Helping our children find a balance between contribution and competition is essential.  Praise their random acts of kindness, encourage them to reach out to those who might be feeling rejected or alone and remind them that we all have unique challenges and talents to share. 

Empathy As Exercise

Empathy is a skill that requires practice and patience.  It is important to model active listening and communication that is receptive and engaging.  It is equally important to use teaching moments of insight to point out to children when they lose sight of others and focus only on themselves, when they act in hurtful or hateful ways to fit in with others they desperately seek acceptance from, and when they judge instead of seeking to understand. Remember to empathize with the struggles they face as they try to discover who they are and who they want to become.  Help them to use those struggles for enlightenment and to build self-worth.

Although the world can be a scary and confusing place, it is also filled with wondrous possibilities and adventures.  Spend time in new parts of your area and visit different restaurants, parks, and stores to give your children a variety of experiences and new perspectives.  Help them understand the struggles others face that may be different from their own, and teach them the value of connection and support in hope and healing.  Talk about local news stories or community events and encourage them to share their thoughts and perspectives.

We all have the potential to practice, empower, and enhance empathy through education, experience, and example.  Together we can truly be the difference that we wish to see in the world.  We can begin to heal the harm that has been done and to teach our children about what truly matters: living a purposeful life, making valuable contributions, and cherishing connections along the journey.  It may not always be easy, but it will always be worth the investment!|

Terry Sears created the KidsPeace Sexual Issues Treatment & Edcuation Program in 1997.  She currently serves as the clinical program manager for the SITE Program and is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker.  Her passion is transforming trauma through hope and healing. Terry holds a master’s degree in social work from Marywood University.