Here at Strength Restored we believe empathy is the key to defeating bullying. We go educate children as young as five how the fundamental role of empathy and the skills they need to become empathic. However, what about the years leading up to them entering school? The blueprint of our personalities are hardwired by the time we are eight, so parents have more than half the job of drawing up those blueprints. So, how does a parent go about raising an empathic child?
Acknowledge And Engage In Your Child’s Own Emotions
Understanding your own emotions is fundamental to becoming empathic. The reason for this is two fold. Firstly, you need to be able to identify which emotion is being felt. Emotions are very complex and some emotions are easily mistaken for another. For instance when you think of the expression of emotion known as rage. most people think of it being an expression of anger. However, it can also be linked to sadness and frustration. Knowing and recognising this fact will help someone become more empathic. Secondly, to be empathic a person needs to know how to control the emotion. I hesitate to say that they need to be in control of their emotions, for even the best of us can lose control in certain circumstances. The most empathic people are more often than not in control — or know how not to lose control most of the time.
As a parent, it is your responsibility to create space in your child’s life to engage and explore their emotions. This could be in a way where you discuss how they felt about a certain situation, exploring how they physically felt as much as their mental feelings. It also involves giving them space to explore by themselves. Sometimes adult’s believe they have to guide children through learning, but children need to be their own guides as well. This will instil within them a sense of ownership that is essential.
It is crucial to not react badly yourself when your child acts badly to their own emotions. Remember, children are still exploring, and they don’t know how to react. It is the same as if you tell a child off for being violence with violence. Children need to embrace how they are feeling in order to understand it. If a child is throwing a tantrum because they are upset or angry, having a parent who is getting upset and angry back at them only confuses them. They are perceiving the parent as also having a tantrum and so not only reinforces the behaviour but tells the child that it is the emotion that is wrong, not the behaviour and they will automatically distance themselves from those feelings.
Don’t Use Emotions As A Guilt Trip
A popular technique parents incorrectly think encourages empathy is telling their child something like “Don’t do that, imagine how it makes …. feels.” or something along those lines. They are taking their child on a guilt trip using emotions. The real problem with this is that it is telling your child that another person’s emotions are more important that their own. Surely, that is what we are wanting? I would say we don’t want to raise a generation who put other peoples feelings before their own, we want to raise a generation where they put others emotions on a parr with our own.
I have a saying “You have got to be selfish to be selfless” meaning, you have to look after yourself so that you can be effective looking after other people. It is my belief that this is hardwired into all of us, and you can see this when it comes to someone’s emotions. We need our own emotions to be recognised and respected. By guilt tripping using emotions, you are disregarding how your child ma feel. This will result in your child putting the defences up. Why should I consider how somebody else feels if no one cares how I feel, they may think. If this becomes a regular occurrence then you reinforce the hardwiring by building up walls around your child’s emotions.
Instead, what you should do is go back to my previous point. Acknowledge how your child is feeling, explore it with them and then bring the other person into it. By doing this you are reinforcing that truth that your child’s emotions are important while strengthening the idea that another person’s emotions are of equal importance.
Be Open With Your Own Emotions
If your child is to become empathic they need people to read emotionally. You are the best person for them, for not only are you around them all the time but you are also one of the people they know best, so it will be easier for them to read you.
There are two reasons why parents may think they want to hide their emotions from their children. The first is that they want to protect their children from the negative sides of emotions, however, sheltering your child from this does not develop their resilience and understanding. You will not destroy their innocence by exposing them to every side of the emotion spectrum. What I have found over my two decades of working with children is that the most resilient part of a child is their innocence. The other reason why parents shy away from showing their emotion in front of their children is that they fear their authority may be tarnished. The problem is that we no longer live in a world where parenting is purely authoritarian. The role of the parent now is to guide your child to adulthood. You must build up respect and trust with your child. The person a child tends to respect and trust is the person with absolute authenticity. In actuality in today’s world authority comes through authenticity which means being open about your emotions.
Give Them Responsibility Towards Others
Being empathic is an active responsibility. Children need to learn how to put their empathy into practice. Therefore my last tip is to give them responsibility towards other people. If their sibling is upset, get your child to comfort and look after them. If you hear of a family friend who has been hurt or is ill, ask your child to pick out a get well soon card or present. It may also be an idea to ask them to present it. But also discuss with them why you are asking them to do these jobs. Encourage them to take responsibility in the head and heart for these things, and soon they will be thinking of ways to act out empathy with out you prompting.
Your ultimate goal is for your child to take pride in being empathic, they should wear it like a badge of honour. They should be the person who values doing empathic tasks above all else. If you can raise a child like this, you are setting them up for a great start in a great life!
Founder & CEO
Strength Restored is Tom’s baby. Born out of 8 years of being the target of bullies, Tom’s heart burns with a passion for seeing the lives of anyone touched by bullying turned around. Tom started working with children when he was only eleven himself, he then expanded into working with young people too, back in 2003. Tom has had the luck of being able to see bullying from all its angles, for not only was he the target of bullying, he also worked as a teaching assistant for a time, and so saw it from the teacher’s point of view too. All this experience has helped him construct Strength Restored, and truly he believes it could make a real impact.