Parents often view empathy as a skill or ability that is trained. In reality, empathy is made up of a variety of processes including:
- Affective empathy: the ability to share the feelings of others
- Cognitive empathy: the ability to see a situation from another person’s perspective while reasoning and evaluating their needs
- Being able to act upon feelings of sympathy and care to comfort the other person
Foster strong self-regulation skills
An essential component of positive parenting is being sensitive and responsive- this leads to secure attachments. Securely attached children are more likely to take emotional risks because they are confident that their parents will be there to support them. This includes being involved with someone who needs sympathy and helping to share their emotional burden.
Children who have better regulation of their negative emotions are usually more empathetic.
The process of learning to regulate negative emotions involves understanding and being comfortable with why and how they occur. A better understanding of their emotions translates to more advanced cognitive empathy (ability to understand others’ feelings and perspective).
Differentiate shame and guilt
Empathy works very differently depending on the circumstance. Let’s imagine the situation of your child’s friend getting hurt and crying. If your child did not cause their friend’s pain they will likely empathize and help them. Contrastingly, if your child caused their friend’s pain, their sense of self-consciousness and guilt can inhibit their ability to empathize.
In these situations, parents need to understand the boundary between guilt and shame. Guilt and shame affect empathy very differently. Guilt makes your child reflect on their wrongdoings and inspires them to respond constructively (often empathizing). In contrast, shame portrays your child as a “bad” person, prompting a sense of helplessness that does not inspire constructive behavior. Even worse, shame can make us aggressive, lash out, and act in an uncaring way.
Affective empathy vs cognitive empathy
Empathy is often thought of as the ability to share someone’s feelings. While this is technically correct, sharing intense feelings can lead to more general confusion and a lack of direction. Cognitive empathy- the ability to see things from others’ perspective and evaluate their needs- is a more dispassionate and logical way of determining how you can help. Cognitive empathy can be trained from games that require children to think about how others feel.