Fostering Empathy in Five-Year-Old Children

Underlying most interactions with other people is our ability to be empathetic, to put ourselves in another person's shoes and experience something in the same way they would. Children, at a very young age, have the ability to be empathetic with the feelings of others. Watching a child as young as 18 months of age react to his mother's distress by putting his head on her lap or patting her arm is an early sign of empathy. If they are not encouraged to develop empathy, how­ever, children lose their capacity to be sensitive to others.

When children are as young as two or three, they can empathize with basic feelings, such as happiness, sadness, and anger. These feelings are familiar from their own experiences and easy for them to label. When children are unable to label more complicated emotions, empathy falters. Even though children have experienced such feelings as frustration and embarrassment, they have not learned to label them. For exam­ple, if your five year old spills paint all over his clothes, the other children will probably laugh instead of empathize with his embarrassment. Even though they have experienced their own embarrassment at one time or another, they are not yet able to identify and label the feeling.

The capacity to understand fully what another person is feeling does not develop until after age six. To help your child, reinforce along the way any incident of empathetic behavior you see. When you see your child offer a toy to another child who is distressed over losing his, point out how good both he and his friend must have felt by that behavior. Help your child to identify more complicated emotions by labeling them for him. When he can't get a puzzle to fit together and pushes it aside, help him identify his feelings with a statement like, "I know it is frustrating when things don't go together right, but if you keep trying, it might work." Talking about your own emotions is another way of fostering empathy in your child. When you are upset or frustrated, identify these feelings for your child. Explaining why you are feeling a certain way also helps increase his awareness of different emotions.

Being able to empathize with your own child's feelings is another step that helps both you and your child. When your child experiences your ability to empathize with what he is feeling, this serves as a good model for him in his interactions with others. For you, being able to empathize with your child's feelings may help you to understand a little better what's going in his life. If, for example, your child comes home complain­ing that he did not get invited to a birthday party, empathize with these feelings instead of rationalizing them with a state­ment like, "That's okay. They'll be other parties." You may find out that there are other issues at stake. He may have just had a fight with his "best" friend, and the birthday party was an added factor. Perhaps this is a popular child whom all the children would like to have as a friend. Whatever the situation, being able to empathize with your child may open up a whole new source of sharing between the two of you.

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