We may be born with the ability to be empathetic, but empathy is a skill that can be learned, practiced and improved. The National Center for Infants, Toddlers and Families defines empathy as "the ability to imagine how someone else is feeling in a particular situation and respond with care." Parents act as important role models in showing their children how to empathize with people. Through their own actions and behaviors, parents can teach their children how to recognize, understand and react to the feelings of others. In addition, parents can lead the family in playing certain empathy-related role playing games to practice these skills.
One of the most obvious ways to detect emotion is through a person's face. Teach your children that facial expressions reveal how a person feels in a given moment. For instance, a smile might mean happiness or excitement while furrowed brows and a frown might mean disappointment, sadness or anger. Help your children learn to match facial expressions with emotions through a role playing facial expression game. Each member of the family gets a chance to make different facial expressions while the rest of the family guesses the emotions. Encourage your children to look in the mirror so they can see how their own faces look as they act out a feeling. This game works best with younger children between the ages of 4 and 10. According to Lawrence Cutner, Ph.D., in his PsychCentral article "How Children Develop Empathy," children begin to draw connections between their own feelings and other people's feelings around the age of 4.
Many children enjoy role playing games that allow them to become different characters. Parents can develop scenarios that draw on a variety of emotions. For instance, a scene might involve two people excluding a third person from joining in a game. Begin by explaining the situation to be acted out. Instruct the two people to begin playing a game and have the third person try to approach. As the scene is acted out, ask the family members and/or friends participating to be aware of the different feelings involved. Afterward, discuss how it felt to be each character. What did the third person feel like when he was not invited to join the game? How could everyone tell the third person felt the way he or she did? What were the clues? What might the two people playing the game do differently, or how could they make up for hurting the third person's feelings? Perhaps a fourth person becomes involved and responds to the excluded member of the group. What can this person do to be empathetic? This type of game helps children learn to detect the signs of emotions and how to react to a person's feelings.
Many children are familiar with memory games that require them to match two cards by remembering where matching cards are in a face-down set. Such games often involve matching words to pictures or rhyming words. Parents can create a game with phrases and words that help children identify emotions. For example, a pair might include a card that says "sad" and a card that says "frown." The game could also require children to match an emotion and a way of showing empathy. For instance, a match might include cards that say "sad about a lost cat" and "help find the cat" or cards that say "lonely and missing mom" and "give a hug." The children could then use role playing to act out a scene that represents their match. Consider the ages and experiences of the children involved. The article "The Reason Memory Games Benefit Everyone" by Mayo Clinic Health Center states, "The learning level of the game has to equal the education level of the child." More advanced children might be able to identify difficult emotions such as surprise.
If you have a big enough group of participants, try playing empathy charades. Have a conversation about the meaning of empathy. Discuss some examples of situations and ways of being empathetic in those situations. Split children up into teams or partners and ask them to come up with a scene to depict an event and emotion as well as a response to that event and emotion. For example, children might act out a scene where one child runs and falls in the street, and the other child comes to his aid, bringing a bandage and helping him walk to a safe place where he can sit down. The audience would have to guess what is happening. Another example might be a group of children teasing one child and another child who invites the excluded child to play together on their own. Acting out such scenes not only teaches children about the meaning of empathy but also allows them to practice employing the skills, using empathetic language and thinking about how they might handle different situations in their everyday lives.