In the schools I have worked in I have found that the key to prevention of bullying is to teach empathy, and children are very good at showing empathy once taught it. Empathy really is the capacity to take another perspective or, as we commonly say, to walk in another person's shoes. However, it is not just about capacity. Some people are very skilled at taking other perspectives but they may not actually care about those people. Abusive people and narcissists can take another's perspectives so they can exploit their weaknesses. Empathy is more about valuing other perspectives and people. It’s about perspective-taking and compassion. So how can we cultivate empathy?
Empathise with your child and show empathy towards others. When parents model empathetic, caring behaviour toward their children and toward others in the children’s presence studies have shown that this is strongly related to children’s development of prosocial attitudes and behaviour.
By modelling empathy, you can help your child to understand what empathy looks like, sounds like, and feels like. And when we empathise with our children it helps them to develop trusting and secure relationships with us and other people. Those attachments are key if we want them to adopt our values and to model our behaviour, and therefore to building their empathy for others. Most importantly, the more that children receive empathy, the more likely they are to offer it to others.
Children will observe, internalise and notice what we do and say, so when you hear a news item if you show empathy towards the situation instead of judgement, even for people you don't know, this is what your child will hear and learn from. So think about what you are modelling. How do you speak to people on the phone or behind the counter (keep in mind they have little control over what is annoying you!) because your child will observe this and repeat what they see.
Discuss and Teach Emotions
It is vital that you talk openly about emotions rather than dismissing them. Imagine your child tells you that they are scared of the dark. Instead of saying, “There’s nothing to be afraid of,” ask the child to explain their fear: “What scares you about the dark?” "What can we do to make it less scary?"
When a child has fallen and hurt themselves you can sympathise " That must hurt a lot when you grazed your knee on the concrete, I can see why that made you cry." We have a tendency to often say "Don't cry-it will be okay" but are we giving them the message that sadness isn't an okay emotion?
Never punish a child for feeling sad or angry. Make it clear that all emotions are welcome, and learn to manage them in a healthy way through discussion and reflection.
Provide opportunities for children to practice empathy.
Learning empathy is a lot like learning a language or a instrument. It requires practice and support. Children are born with the capacity for empathy, but in order to maintain it you need to nurture it throughout their lives. When we regularly consider other people’s perspectives and circumstances this helps us make empathy a natural reflex and, with practice, children get better at tuning into other people's feelings and perspectives. When your child shows empathy for others, praise the behaviour as this will encourage empathetic behaviour in the future. Make the praise specific: “You helped your brother up when he fell off his bike. That was so kind and helpful!”
Help out at home or in the community,
One of the best things you can do when you are feeling down is to do something for someone else as this will release endorphins which create a mild high in the body. Helping others can help your child to develop kindness and caring towards others. This also allows children the opportunity to interact with people of diverse age, backgrounds and cultures, which helps them to understand and develop empathy for all people.
Teach them about Perspective
Listening to someone else’s opinion is really important. We may not agree with what they say but if we open ourselves up to what they are saying we might learn something new about that person or the world. This can be enhanced when someone asks you for your opinion because you know then that they value you and respect you. This is a way of showing empathy for that person as it can help you to understand what they are feeling and help you to understand why they are feeling it.
These very famous pictures can be used to teach children that even when we can look at things differently they still be correct.
Rabbit or Duck? Old Lady or Young Lady?
Help our children understand that the world doesn't revolve around them.
It is important that you teach your child to consider others, both people they know and people in their community. Help them to understand that they need to consider your needs and feelings. Don’t let them treat you disrespectfully or like a servant! You can do this by: ●Getting them to pitch in. Get your child to help around the house, involve them in cooking meals and taking turns to do household jobs.
●Value empathy and caring in others. Notice with your child when someone shows impressive empathy, or a lack of empathy. This can be done either in your daily life or in a book or on television. Books and movies are a great time to discuss why acts of empathy are important and why lacking empathy can be harmful.
●Talk about stereotypes and prejudices. We are all subject to unconscious biases so it is important to help older kids name stereotypes and prejudices that might be affecting how they or others are responding to people. Help your children to see that stereotypes and prejudices are common but harmful and that we all have a responsibility to be aware of them so that we can reduce their harmful impact on others.
●Make them wait. This is a great strategy for allowing children to realise that they are not the most important thing in the world! When we teach them how to wait (without whining and complaining) it will help them to differentiate between what’s urgent and what’s not and allow us to give them our full undivided attention when we are not being interrupted. This great video clip explains the important difference between empathy and sympathy
What is the best way to ease someone's pain and suffering? This video clip by Dr Brené Brown reminds us that we can only create a genuine empathic connection if we are brave enough to really get in touch with our own fragilities.
The resource below is an activity that you can do with your class or child to help them understand what another person may be feeling in order to teach them about perspective and empathy.
This resource is to support you with question ideas when reading to a child to help open up discussion. The books are some suggestions that can teach about empathy.
These great blogs and websites have further reading and resources available