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For all the challenges adults have with exercising empathy, children growing up in a largely digital world now have fewer opportunities to practice empathy in face-to-face interactions, which would help them learn through trial and error.

“Kids aren’t seeing and learning how to read facial expressions and cues in the same way,” explains clinical psychologist Christopher Willard, PsyD, author of Growing Up Mindful.

Willard recommends parents and teachers look for everyday opportunities to teach empathy, rather than waiting for an obvious teachable moment. “It’s not just saying, after a kid hits Billy, ‘How do you think that made Billy feel?’”

These strategies can help instill empathy from early on.

  1. Read aloud to children and point to pictures of characters’ faces. Ask little ones, “How do you think that person feels?” As kids get a bit older, ask, “Why might this person have acted this way?”
  2. Play games. Simple games like 20 Questions, I Spy, and charade-type games teach empathy and emotional intelligence. “They make kids think, What could Dad be thinking about? He usually picks an animal,” says Willard. Or they look where you’re looking to see what you might spy, getting a sense of your actual perspective in that moment.
  3. Model empathy. Willard recalls a recent New Year’s Eve when his young family used Monopoly money to help the kids understand and participate in decisions about where to donate money to support causes they cared about.
  4. Ask older kids to write first-person stories from another person’s perspective. Reading narratives of people who have experiences that are different from ours also goes a long way toward sparking empathy. This is a skill adults can practice, too.

This was excerpted from “8 Ways to Rediscover Empathy” which was published in the December 2022 issue of Experience Life.

Jill Patton, FMCHC

Jill Patton, FMCHC, is a Minneapolis-based health writer and functional-medicine certified health coach.

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