February 2021 Newsletter

This month, our topic is Empathy as a Habit. We’re not only talking about teaching empathy to our children, but practicing empathy so that our emotional intelligence skyrockets and we become more in-touch with the feelings of our children, loved ones, and ourselves. You can check out the whole newsletter right here, or keep reading on below.

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Let’s Talk: Empathy As A Habit

How often do you practice empathy? It is something we often do unconsciously; we may see our child laugh which makes us laugh, or we might get worried when a loved one is worried, too. Other times, it’s something we do deliberately, and it isn’t always easy. An example may be empathizing with a friend who has a sick family member; it may be challenging to put ourselves in their shoes if it’s a scenario we’ve never experienced.

Empathy, simply put, is to actively understand someone else’s experience. It’s a word that describes the true understanding of another individual’s feelings and experience by “stepping into their shoes” and actually having the same feelings or imagining yourself going through the same experience.

Sympathy and empathy are often confused for each other. Sympathy is caring for another’s feelings and showing concern and care, but not taking that extra step of feeling their emotions or truly “stepping into their shoes”.  Check out psychologist Brene Brown’s animated video that explains the difference between sympathy and empathy.
Now, sympathy isn’t always a bad thing. It can be emotionally exhausting to be empathetic to all the world’s suffering! Sympathy can be positive and useful in showing care and concern, though it’s more detached than empathy. But, let me be clear: empathy is not always an easy thing. It requires a great deal of intimacy with our own emotions, especially the uncomfortable ones.

Knowing the difference, ask yourself, how often do I practice empathy? How often do I feel sympathetic, rather than empathetic? The reason we’re talking about this topic this month is that we believe that empathy is a habit. It’s not something that can be taught in the same way as reading or math, but like learning a language, it becomes more natural the more you practice it. Moreover, it’s a habit that we can start teaching our children from a very young age so that it becomes a foundational skill for life. How do we practice this skill with them?
Give children the language they need. How can you describe your feelings if you don’t have the words for it? A feelings wheel, like the one below, not only gives us the words for certain emotions, it also expands on certain feelings. Maybe we feel angry, but truth be told, there’s different types of anger! Are we really feeling ignored, jealous, annoyed, or frustrated? Maybe we a combination of those emotions, or something else entirely! For children who can’t read, there’s also great charts like these, which use facial expressions to describe emotions. Place a chart like this in a “cozy corner” designated for breaks or quiet time; for an overwhelmed child, it’s so helpful for them (and you!) to have the chart and use it to get to the bottom of their emotions.
Read, read, read! Reading is the perfect way to present new scenarios and experiences to children. There are thousands of children’s books that introduce uncomfortable or difficult topics, ranging from divorce, going to the dentist, sharing toys, emigrating to a new country, being kind, and much more. Reading – especially when you read to a child – also affords us one-on-one time to further discuss the topic. A book may spark questions and open up a dialogue with a child, and a book allows the child to see themselves as the protagonist and learn how to respond to future uncomfortable situations in a more kind and knowledgeable way. We love these books that are specifically about kindness and empathy – but there are certainly books for any specific scenario, google what you need!

Be the role model. Being empathetic yourself is inarguably the most powerful tool in teaching empathy. Children are constantly absorbing their environments and as parents and caregivers, children look to us as examples. That’s not to say we are all perfect people! There will always be scenarios where we react negatively or in a way we might regret. What’s important is to recognize what we didn’t do and should have done. For example, maybe we’re frustrated and speak too critically to a child. We should take a step back and first wonder what emotion was driving the critical voice. Maybe we’re overwhelmed by the workday or getting a little annoyed by a child’s behavior. Here, it’s good to be empathetic in understanding the child’s behavior, or realize we might be acting out because we had a bad day. It might be a good moment to apologize and explain why you acted harshly. This shows a child that while our emotions can sometimes get the best of us, it’s always okay to apologize and making a mistake is normal.
Empathy is the necessary step towards compassion. Compassion is when we feel compelled to resolve another person’s suffering, and it requires us to fully understand that suffering by first being empathetic. When we’re compassionate, we’re further engaged in another person’s suffering and are not actively trying to help. 
Personally, what I love about learning empathy is that there’s always room to grow, and we can grow alongside our children in this way. They too can teach us empathy! It’s not uncommon to see a 3-year-old parenting and caring for a younger child, and they’re not just modeling momma. They’re showing that they understand the love they receive and are so willing to give it to another little one, knowing that the little one may want and miss their mom or dad in the same way that they do.

This is why we say that empathy is the best habit that we can have; the more we’re empathetic, the more we’re in touch with the feelings of others and ourselves. Though there’s discomfort involved with feeling the dread, sorrow, guilt, or many of the other uneasy emotions that our loved ones feel, that only makes the happier emotions – peace, joy, gratefulness, empowerment, connection – feel stronger and deeper. Empathy makes us confront our own vulnerabilities and emotions, forcing us to always build and tear down those boundaries and reevaluate what we’re scared of, hope for, need, and don’t need. By being empathetic, we are increasing our emotional intelligence, as well as our child’s. We start to continually nourish that gentle side of ourselves and our children, even when it’s hard.

In short, empathy is what makes us human (though, interestingly enough, empathy has been observed in other species) and empathy is what allows us to get closer to others and ourselves. Remember, when teaching a lesson of kindness and thoughtfulness to your child, we’re all still just humans continually figuring out our world – even us adults.

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