Coach Kim: How to teach empathy to kids (and why it's important)

Little girl crying on the playground, and it is comforting boy. Stress, sadness, depression, problems, punishment.

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SALT LAKE CITY — I heard someone say recently that kids today don't have the same level of empathy for others that we did back in our day. It got me wondering if this was true. So, I did some research and was surprised to find that science agrees.

According to an article in Scientific American, our country is experiencing a great decrease in empathy for other people, which the authors call an "empathy deficit." The article mentions "a recent Gallup poll showed that roughly a third of the country doesn't think there's a problem with race relations" and the authors suggest this shows that many people aren't grasping other people's perspectives. They blame technology, social media and the pandemic as major causes.

On the "Speaking of Psychology" podcast, episode 95, they also state that there's scientific research to back up the notion that Americans are caring less for others and more about themselves. Even Forbes magazine announced that the word for 2021 would be "empathy."

The work of researcher Helen Riess, author of the new book "The Empathy Effect," aims to show the "ability to connect empathically with others — to feel with them, to care about their well-being, and to act with compassion — is critical to our lives, helping us to get along, work more effectively, and thrive as a society," according to a Greater Good magazine article about the book.

The article goes on to say that Riess' work shows empathy involves our "ability to perceive others' feelings ... to imagine why someone might be feeling a certain way and to have concern for their welfare. Once empathy is activated, compassionate action is the most logical response."

We could all show more compassion for the other people around us. In my 20-plus years as a master life coach, I have found that fear has hardwired us toward judging others, especially people who are different from us. I think we have to fight a subconscious tendency toward judging and consciously choose to stretch the limits of our love and be empathetic.

Given that we are experiencing a decline in empathy, what can we do to strengthen our own empathy muscles and teach empathy to our children? Here are a few suggestions:

Pay more attention to other people's emotions. Notice people and what's going on with them. This requires you to be observant and get out of your own head and problems. It means putting the phones down and interacting with real people. Now, that we are coming out of a distanced and quarantined year, it's time to reconnect and pay more attention to the people around us.

Be a role model of empathy and compassion. Let kids see you caring about and speaking kindly about other people, especially those that are different from you. Make sure they see and hear you talk about these people with compassion, not judgment. If children hear you judge and gossip about others, they learn that it's OK to reject some people and see them as less than you. If you demonstrate a disregard for others, you teach children that other people don't matter. Make sure you are setting an example of compassion and caring toward all people.

Use "I" statements instead of "you" statements. Let children hear you say "when you hit me, I feel unloved and it makes me sad," instead of "you shouldn't hit me." This helps them learn that actions affect other people and how they feel. Help them understand actions have consequences for others.

Listen better. Parents need to ask questions, listen and try to really understand what their child is feeling and experiencing, especially when they are upset or in trouble. If you aren't willing to take the time to care about their feelings and listen to them, you may be teaching them not to do this for other people. They might contribute to them growing up feeling they are less important themselves, in which case they will likely care less about others.

Help children understand that everyone has unchangeable value. It's important children learn the even though each person is different, sees the world differently, and makes different choices, other people have the same value as they do. Teach them that all humans, no matter the differences, have the same, intrinsic value and no one has more value or less value than anyone else. Teach them to see all humans as their equals, even though there are differences.

Help children recognize and name their own emotions as they experience them. If a child gets embarrassed at school, talk about what embarrassment feels like. Talk about how everyone experiences it sometimes and how they can now understand how others feel when they experience it. Help them understand that every experience gives you empathy to better understand other people. Every experience — even the negative ones — gives you knowledge that is a gift when it comes to understanding others.

Help children practice empathy. Show them how to think through what another person might be feeling and what they might need or appreciate right now. Look for opportunities to have the child put themselves in the shoes of the other person and imagine how they must feel. Ask questions like what would help you if you were in those shoes?

Help children find healthy ways to cope with their own uncomfortable emotions. Unfortunately, technology is how a lot of teens today cope with stress or emotions like anger, embarrassment or fear. They need to practice talking emotions through with an adult who is capable of listening and reflecting, without making it about themselves. They need you to model ways to process emotions through talking, exercise, journaling or meditation.

Teach your children to respect other people by modeling the behavior yourself. Show respect to everyone and stay in control of your emotions. Show children calm, compassionate ways to interact and solve conflict with others — even with people who are difficult. If you didn't learn these skills from your parents or another trusted adult, work with a coach or counselor and learn them yourself first.

Discuss situations that you see in TV shows. Ask your child if they relate to a person in the show. Talk about what they might be feeling and experiencing. Talk about these fictional people with compassion and understanding. Avoid judgment, criticism and talking down about people on TV, even if they aren't real.

Talk with your children about bullying. Most kids see or experience bullying at school. This is a topic you should bring up and talk about often. Ask questions about the kind of bullying your child sees both off and online. Ask how they feel about this and see if they can put themselves in the shoes of both the bully and the victim. What do you think is driving the behavior? Why is it a problem? What can we do about it? What kind of person do you want to be? These are great questions to start with.

Discuss often what it means to be a good friend. Ask your children questions like what kind of behaviors do you see in good friends. What does it mean to you when you are treated well? What does bad friend behavior look like? What kind of friend do you want to be?

Empathy is a skill and we can get better at it with commitment and practice. In today's world, it is easy to function from a place of judgment toward others and especially toward people who are different.

Increasing our own empathy and compassion means stretching and being willing to get out of our comfort zone. It means taking time to listen and show up instead of distracting ourselves with our phones. However, empathy is the rich and loving part of our connection with other human beings that make life worth living; it will be worth the effort.

You can do this.

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About the Author: Kim Giles

Coach Kim Giles is a master life coach and speaker who helps clients improve themselves and their relationships. She is the author of "Choosing Clarity: The Path to Fearlessness" and has a free clarity assessment available on her website claritypointcoaching.com. To read more of her articles, visit Coach Kim's KSL.com author page.

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