So where does the ability to feel empathy come from? My esteemed friend, psychotherapist and professor, Dr. Deborah Wilke shares this analogy.
Think of your brain as a shelf-lined storage closet, full of boxes of every shape and size. These are the containers of your human experiences and knowledge. One box holds intuition, which was a birthday present. Another holds motivations that all people have, like eating when you are hungry, telling people what you need to survive. Some boxes exist only as a result of interaction with significant others. One of these is the box labeled, EMPATHY.
There are three steps in the method to building the box of EMPATHY.
- The first is tied to forming empathy with peers. A parent or significant caregiver will encourage a child to talk about how his interactions with his peers might have affected the feelings of the peer. An example might be to ask for words from the child about what he or she is observing as their friend lost a dog, and to internalize the sadness to experience grief and the pain of it on behalf of the peer. Over and over again, a child who has developed empathy will try to comfort a peer who is feeling loss because he or she has had the opportunity to feel the sadness and does not want the peer to feel badly. I have seen it often in the schools when children rush to the defense of another who has experienced a loss.
- The second and third, are tied to adults in the child’s life. When a child has the opportunity to witness a parent or caregiver’s empathy toward another adult peer, he is learning lessons for the future. He is outside looking in, learning by example, how to love, protect, feel the benefit of empathy toward another person in need. He or she sees the capacity for helping others makes the situation better, and better is a relief.
- Thirdly, when a parent demonstrates the ability to be empathic toward his own child, another lesson opens to the young person learning how to be empathic. Take, for example, the child who brings a less than stellar report card home. A method that teaches a lesson in empathy is to encourage the child to discuss his own feelings about his grade, and then to share how receiving his or her own low grade in the past made the parent feel. Naming a situation and the feelings that surround it opens communication and trust, and helps the child realize that even when he or she disappoints, he still deserves parental love. It is a bridge to making a plan for improvement, and ultimately, hope. Honesty, communication, acceptance.
If you are unsure of the tools you bring to building empathy, contact leona@nextpagecoaching to learn more about raising your children to be effective leaders who lead through empathy.
Building a better world through filling a child’s empathy box,