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Take a Closer Look

We want our children to develop the skill of empathy, defined as the capacity to understand or feel what others are feeling. The foundation of empathy is a skill called perspective-taking. Empathy allows us not only to understand or imagine, but also to convey to others what we understand their emotional experience to be. Empathy is arguably the single most important skill at the heart of successful relationships, whether at work, at home, with friends or family. These are the important principles demonstrated in Encouraging Empathy:

Name Their Emotions

Dad immediately acknowledges his daughter’s disappointment when he hears her complain that her brother won’t play videogames with her. This allows her to feel seen and heard by him, which makes it easy for her to tell him more about what’s going on. If the daughter did not feel seen and heard, it would have been more difficult for her to consider someone else’s emotions. 

Stay Out Of It

Dad wisely keeps himself from getting involved in the situation between his son and daughter. He knows not to call his son into the room and try to broker an agreement between them (see Stay Out of It). Instead, he listens to what his daughter says and recognizes an opportunity to coach her on the valuable skill called perspective-taking.

Invite Perspective-Taking

Hearing that she doesn’t know what happened to her brother that day, dad tells her about the disappointing news the boy received just that afternoon. He asks her to imagine what her brother is feeling. When she’s unable to do so, he coaches her to stand, with his guidance, in her brother’s shoes.

Relate To Their Experience

Dad first invites his daughter to imagine herself in a situation that she can easily relate to. “If your coach hadn’t picked you to be on the dance squad,” he says, “can you imagine how that might make you feel?”  He helps her name what she thinks her own emotions would be, and uses that information to create a bridge between the boy’s real and the girl’s imagined situations. This approach helps her learn how to stand in the shoes of others.

As part of promoting his daughter’s empathy, dad knows the importance of naming specific emotions her brother may be experiencing — sadness and disappointment in particular. This also helps the girl expand her emotion vocabulary, a key element of emotional intelligence (see Naming Emotions).

At the end of the scene, the father further promotes his daughter’s emotional intelligence by saying, “Moods change once we’ve had a chance to feel our feelings for a while.” Children easily fear getting stuck in a “bad mood,” with painful emotions that won’t go away. We can teach them that emotions come and go, especially when we give feelings breathing room to be fully felt until their energy runs out.

Watch the video without narration

Talking to Kids You Love is written and created by Aaron Cooper, Ph.D., in collaboration with Marina Eovaldi, Ph.D., and Benjamin Rosen, Ph.D. The project is made possible by a generous grant from The Golub Family Foundation.