Column: Instilling empathy in our kids

By Amber Russell
Youth First Inc.

The words empathy and sympathy are often grouped together or used interchangeably, but they mean two very different things. According to the dictionary, sympathy means: "Feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else's misfortune." Empathy, on the other hand, means: "The ability to understand another person's feelings, experiences, etc."

We cannot fix all of the problems we come across, but we can make active choices to empathize with those who are going through a hard time. Empathizing with others is sometimes more valuable than finding solutions to their problems. At some point, all of us need someone to validate our feelings and sit in the darkness with us when we are having bad days.

For example, if someone tells you they are struggling with something, you may respond with sympathy and say something like, "I'm so sorry you are going through this." If you were to respond with empathy, you might instead make an effort to relate to them. You could say something like, "That's really tough. I've gone through something similar."

How can we work to help ourselves and our kids become more empathic? The first key is to be always present and actively listen. Setting an example by giving others your full attention and working to truly understand what they are experiencing is a great start. Try not to listen to others' problems just so you can offer solutions.

The next way we can respond with more empathy is not to judge or assume that we know how someone feels. Just because we reacted to a past situation in a specific way doesn't mean that others will respond the same way. Ask them how they feel, ask them to tell you more, and ask them how you can help.

A great way to help kiddos develop empathy is to encourage them to identify their own emotions as they arise. This will help them imagine how others might feel and allow them to contemplate how other people's emotions may be different from theirs.

Another way to instill empathy in children is by expanding their horizons. Expose them to different types of people with different backgrounds, views and perspectives. Story books, TV shows, and movies are a great way to do this. Use books and shows with different characters in them to discuss how certain characters might feel and why.

Mastering the art of using empathy doesn't happen overnight. It takes time and practice to truly understand others. Working to express this type of empathy fosters a deeper connection and will allow you to more readily step into another person's shoes.

Amber Russell, LCSW, is the Youth First Social Worker at Pike Central Middle School and Pike Central High School in Pike County. Youth First Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to strengthening youth and families, provides 64 Master's level social workers to 92 schools in 11 Indiana counties. Over 60,000 youth and families per year are served by Youth First's school social work and after school programs that prevent substance abuse, promote healthy behaviors and maximize student success. To learn more about Youth First, visit youthfirstinc.org or call 812-421-8336.




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