Helping Your Child with Special Needs Develop Empathy
All parents want to see their children grow up to be as happy, successful, and productive as possible. But perhaps even more important to most parents is to see their kids — including those with special needs — develop empathy for others. Empathy is what helps children recognize and understand the feelings of other people.
When you empathize with someone, you can put yourself in that person’s shoes. No matter how far our children go in life or what they choose to do, the ability to empathize will be essential.
Empathy vs. Sympathy
Many people confuse empathy with sympathy. Empathy can help someone understand how it would feel to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. Sympathy is simply feeling pity or compassion when someone else suffers misfortune. Sympathy is good, but empathy is more all-encompassing. Without empathy, maintaining healthy relationships with a spouse or partner, friends, and coworkers can be extremely difficult. Empathy has also been found to be a driving force in the following:
• Happiness: Empathetic people are able to form stronger interpersonal connections.
• Problem-solving: When solving problems, empathy allows for better cognitive collaboration in order to help others. This is true whether problems are related to a job, family matters, or something else.
• Creativity: Fascinating studies have identified empathy as an essential part of creativity.
So if empathy is so important, how can we instill that quality in our children? Whether your child has special needs or is more typically developing, there are some simple things you can do to encourage empathy. Here are a few ideas:
Talk about feelings.
When conflicts arise with friends or family members, encourage your child to step back from how he or she is feeling to consider how the other person feels, You can ask how your child feels, but then ask, “How do you think Jake feels when you hit him, or when you won’t let him use your basketball? How would you feel in his shoes?” Help your child understand the “golden rule” of treating others in the way he or she would want to be treated.
Pretending helps children learn how to recognize and regulate emotions, both positive and negative. When they get into different characters, kids face issues that result from their play situations and are essentially feeling the feelings of someone else, which can help them learn to empathize.
Make face time a priority.
Components of emotional literacy, like empathy, are developed and enhanced in part by the interpretation of facial expressions, tone of voice, and other things you can only get through real, human interaction. Social media doesn’t count.
As parents, we can help our children develop a healthy ability to empathize with others no matter what their own challenges. Even children with special needs such as ADHD, depression, or anxiety can learn and use empathy to some extent. Empathy can help them form and strengthen relationships, enhance learning, and improve their overall quality of life.