Children and empathy: Teaching emotional literacy

Teaching emotional literacy is the first step to developing empathy in children.

Connect with your child on an emotional level.
Connect with your child on an emotional level.

In the book “Unselfie: Why empathetic kids succeed in our All-About-Me World,” educational psychologist Michele Borba talks about the importance of empathy, why children are having a harder time developing it and how to help children learn empathy to succeed.

Empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone’s shoes and understand what they are going through; it’s the ability to feel what they are feeling. Why is empathy so important? With ongoing societal issues like bullying and youth mental health concerns, teaching empathy to children is more important than ever.

Empathetic people have the ability to connect with others on a deeper level and can lead to individuals being helpful, involved and invested in other people. In our social society where we have to rely on each other, empathy is an increasingly important tool to connect with the world.

Emotional literacy

The first step to developing empathy is emotional literacy, or the ability to read or recognize your own emotions and the emotions of others so that you can figure out what they are feeling. Emotional literacy is noticing what other people are feeling. By tuning in to what other people are feeling, you have accomplished the first step towards developing empathy. In fact, according to Borba and lots of other research, this emotional literacy is associated with children who are smarter, nicer, happier and more resilient, and kids who are better adjusted emotionally, are more popular and outgoing.

Why is emotional literacy difficult?

We are constantly “plugged in.” Emotionally literacy skills require face-to-face reciprocal interactions to develop. In our digital world, where we are constantly engaged in one-way interactions via technology, we are simply giving children less opportunity to engage in meaningful and two-way, face-to-face interactions with others, which is a big part of developing emotional literacy skills.

Our expectations for boys and girls differ. Because of our social gender norms, there is the belief that boys and men should not express their emotions as it makes them too feminine, less manly or weak. In line with that belief, we tend to talk more about emotional experiences with girls than with boys. As a result, girls tend to be better at tuning in.

We are busy and distracted. Borna says, “Each swipe and type means less talking with, next to or face-to-face with our kids and missed empathy-building opportunities.” Technology can be part of the problem. When we are on our cell phones or tablets or watching television, we tend to curtail actual interactions with our children. It’s not always technology that is the culprit, however. Sometimes it’s our workload, schedule or the ever-constant struggle to keep things balanced and everyone happy.

Teaching emotional literacy

Borba has identified her four steps to tuning into feelings:

  1. Stop and tune in. Connect with your child on an emotional level. Move past the distractions and actually, intentionally and fully connect with your child each and every day.
  2. Look face-to-face. The first step to good communication is eye contact. Get down on your child’s level and show them you are interested and invested by using good eye contact.
  3. Focus on feelings. Children need to learn not only are feelings important, but how to express those feelings. Give them good words to use like I-statements: I feel ______ when you _______. Give them words to describe how they feel like mad, angry, embarrassed, frustrated, shocked and ecstatic. Ask good questions: “You seem really upset, what are you feeling right now?” Help children connect their physical reactions to the underlying emotions: “I see your face is getting red, are you feeling angry?”
  4. Express the feelings. Before children have developed their emotional vocabulary, you will need to help them express their feelings, like “You must have been so excited when you were picked for Student of the Week.” Once children have learned the words necessary to express their emotions, you can ask them “How do you feel?” It’s also important to ask your children how they think other people feel: “How do you think he felt when she three sand at him?”

Tuning in is the first step to raising empathetic children. For more information about how to help children develop empathy, check back for more articles in this series.

For more articles on child development, academic success, parenting and life skill development, please visit the Michigan State University Extension website.

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