Written by : Homaira Kabir

How to Raise Empathetic Kids

Discover what parents can do to teach empathy in a world obsessed with status and material wealth.

Diverse group of teen girls sitting on a couch touching hands.

Set boundaries and encourage gratitude to bring out the best in your children.

It’s almost the end of the hour and for the third session in a row, my life coaching client is still complaining about her partner. I’ve tried to help her have some perspective and find a level of empathy for her partner. I’ve even made a couple of guarded attempts at building gratitude, but my efforts have been tossed aside.

“What do you really want?” I finally ask, beginning to doubt whether it’s a better relationship.

“I want to change him,” she says, pointedly.

When I tell her that’s not something I can help her do, she rebukes me for my weak approach. Needless to say, it’s our last session.

Unrealistic expectations

She wasn’t my first client whose idea of a healthy relationship is one where he or she can change a partner. Or whose relationships are demanding and laden with expectations—and often disappointments. Because healthy relationships of any kind grow on a bedrock of empathy, not selfish demands, where we listen in order to understand and we know how to compromise through win-win communication. 

There are reasons many of us struggle with this. But in working with clients such as the one I described, I’ve been struck by how often it’s the kind of parenting we receive that sets us up to believe the world revolves around us.

Spare the rod…

I’m not talking about dysfunctional parenting styles and insecure attachments. I’m talking about well-meaning parents who fulfill their child’s every desire and fail to set boundaries around what they can and cannot have. And in a world where consumerism is having its heyday and parents are busier than ever, many of us risk falling into that category.

As a mother of four adolescents myself, I know how much easier it is to give in to my children’s apparently urgent and ever-growing “needs.” Sure, we would have fewer arguments, less emotional agony and guilt, and happier children—in the short run—if we met our children’s every demand.

The dopamine addiction

When we do give in to our children every time, we feed a part of the brain that’s designed to always want better and more. It’s what neuropsychologist Rick Hanson calls the “rat brain,” and when “newer and better” versions of every product constantly inundate the market, our children’s internal rat is in a continuous tizzy, setting off little “happy hits” of that addictive love drug, dopamine.

This emotional frenzy, when continued over time and without proper boundaries, can actually limit the development of the prefrontal cortex that is capable of restraint and perspective. And studies in interpersonal neurobiology show that this results in a less well-integrated brain that is inflexible in its demands, unable to regulate emotions well and singularly focused on its own desires. And in a global world where our individual and collective well-being increasingly depends on our ability to have compassion and to work well with others, we need to prepare our children better.

So here’s what we can do instead.

1. Set real boundaries

Boundaries help our children make values-based choices, and all the more important when the choices around them are endless, and the pressure to have the latest of everything is bombarding them from many fronts. In adolescence, when the need for social approval is at its peak, boundaries help them stand their ground and enjoy what they do have, rather than run after what they don’t. However these boundaries need to be mutually agreed upon, set in advance rather than willy-nilly and adhered to so that our children learn to trust us.

2. Teach gratitude

Gratitude calms the rat brain. It shifts the focus from what’s missing to what’s already present. And given that we’re wired to pay far more attention to the negative, it’s a skill we need to help our children master, so they can appreciate what they have rather than buy into the promise of happiness on the other side of “more.” One way to do so is to have frequent discussions at the dinner table of the good things in their lives that they’re grateful for.

3. Encourage giving

Our society worships the individual and fools us into believing that the world revolves around us. But research shows that always being a “taker” is detrimental to our relationships, our well-being and, surprisingly, even our success. Teaching our children the importance of giving, leads not only to their increased happiness, but also to a more just world. We can help them by identifying opportunities to give, and then help them savor the joy that results from doing so.

4. Build empathy and compassion

As the most social species on the planet, we’re wired for compassion. But we’re also wired for egoistic pursuits—such is the paradox of the human brain. Research shows that we have two motivational systems that regulate our thoughts, emotions and actions: The competitive system and the compassionate system. But as in the Cherokee legend of the two wolves of the heart, the one that grows stronger is the one we feed. Needless to say, in a world that idealizes fame and fortune, the competitive system is being fattened by the day.

Our role as parents is critical in helping our children connect to their emotions and nurture the pathways of compassion. There are billions amongst us, and even more to come, who are desperate for our empathy. Entire populations are suffering terrible fates, and we often become inured or stop caring when we are overwhelmed by the tragedies taking place around the world. But future generations will struggle with the legacy if we let our consumerist and desires outweigh or overrule our concern for other human beings. As Diane Ackerman has so eloquently stated, future geologists will ponder our recklessness as they sift through our remains and find not bones, but all manner of residue that foretell our spoiled and egoistic lives.

I know it can be difficult, but we have little choice. Think of it this way: Helping our children burst through their self-centered bubbles and strengthen their compassionate motivational system is essential for the sake of better relationships, a more egalitarian world and a brighter future for the generations who come after us.

Homaira Kabir is a positive psychology coach and a cognitive behavioral therapist. She offers online courses and coaching programs to help women develop authentic beliefs in themselves, so they're able to lead in relationships, at work and in life. Take her free confidence quiz here.

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