What is your Child’s EQ (Empathy Quotient)?

Img 0212 Empathy

Have you ever been shocked at how a toddler can be downright rough with a sweet puppy and how he seems to get joy out of pulling the cat’s tail? Has your 10 year old ever been cruel to her best friend?

Empathy is the ability to sense another person’s emotions and understand their feelings. It allows us to actually feel their pain or happiness. MRI studies have confirmed that neuronal pathways (connections) are created, deepened and exercised in the brain as you practice empathy. These empathy pathways in your brain are designed to pick up another person’s feelings, process the information then actually feel the same feeling. This connection allows for caring to take place which enriches relationships.

Because physical presence and facial expressions are necessary for fully understanding another person, empathy development in children can be stunted with a digital diet heavy on video games and social media. It gets harder to master this skill as the number of screens, virtual friends, and isolated play increases in your child’s life. The harsh nature of gaming (killing your best friend in Minecraft to shooting a police officer in Grand Theft Auto), combined with the subtle (and not so subtle) disrespect and cruelty in social media will hurt and desensitize your child’s ability to discern pain in another person. Board games and other in-person games on the other hand, allow the players to process facial expressions and make a mental picture of the player’s intentions which is necessary for empathy development.

Learning how to be compassionate and how to relate to the unique feelings of other people (getting your attention off yourself) are critical developmental tasks of childhood. Since empathy is a skill that children are not born with it must be taught, learned and then practiced. Mom and dad can do a wonderful job of developing this in their child by finding creative ways to practice empathy at home. Taking care of a pet or helping with a younger sibling can be the beginning of building empathy. Here are a few more practical tips:

  1. Non-distracted listening with eye to eye contact and no screen buzzing or interrupting. Show your child how to do this by doing it with him. Leave your phone in the other room and listen to him making eye contact.
  2. Share feelings in the conversation. Empathy is a two way street. Don’t just listen but offer kind words without solving the problem too quickly every time. “I know how you must feel; I was very sad the day I lost my dog too.”
  3. Be aware of your surroundings. Be attentive when out; help an elderly person, offer to carry something for someone who is struggling or hold the door for a stranger, etc. Teach your child to use his senses to ‘see’ what is going on around him and anticipate other people’s needs. He may be blind to these opportunities if he is focusing on his handheld device when you are doing errands..
  4. Physical contact. Human touch is very powerful activating empathy pathways and increasing hormone levels making both feel better. A hand on the shoulder or pat on the back is healing, conveying more than words. 
  5. Talk with people. One of the best ways to build empathy is to teach your child to talk with adults when you are out. Teach him to ask good questions, use humor and make other people feel important. 
  6. Use compassion.. Teach your child about compassion by being compassionate to him.  “I am here to help you until we figure it out, we are in this together, we are a family and we stick together!”
  7. Imagination: An active imagination will help your child feel another’s feelings. This can be developed and practiced by reading fiction and learning how to feel the feelings of the characters in the book as they are developed by the author.

Empathy creates compassion and makes us a caring society. It reduces prejudice and reduces bullying and is a keystone habit for success in life.   Purposefully make empathy part of each day and before long your child’s EQ will be soaring!

For more information don’t miss the next MMM meeting on the Covenant Day School campus on April 23 from 6:30-8:30 pm. Go to www.momsmanagingmedia.com for details and to RSVP!