Practicing Empathy During a Pandemic

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This article originally appeared in Memphis Parent, as a guest contribution from Prepared Parents co-founder and executive director Mira Browne.


Photo by Jayson Hinrichsen on Unsplash

A few weeks ago, my husband Ben mentioned that he’s frustrated over how me-centric our family has become, and I think he’s right. We’ve spent the past month creating an entirely new life compared to the one we were living pre-COVID-19, trying to figure out how to live together 24/7 while balancing two jobs and our kids’ distance learning. There’s no doubt each of us has become more focused on ourselves, and I think that is understandable, to a point.

The other night my two kids were complaining about not liking the dinner Daddy made (in our household, my husband is the cook). How did I respond? I whipped out my phone to show them a news story about the thousands of people who are lining up at food pantries right now to get any dinner at all. Then I lectured them about how lucky they are to have food for every meal, every day. Their response? They just stared at me. That made me more frustrated that they didn’t get it. I realized that showing them a photo of hungry families was not going to lead my kids to a sudden feeling of compassion or gratitude for what they have. We needed to go deeper and practice empathy as a family.

I love what author Brenè Brown says about empathy: “It’s when someone is in a deep hole and they shout out from the bottom, ‘I’m stuck. It’s dark. I’m overwhelmed.’ And we respond by climbing down in there with them and telling them, ‘I know what it’s like down there. You are not alone.’”

Brenè teaches us that practicing empathy is a vulnerable choice. In order to connect with you, I have to connect with something within myself that knows that feeling. So how do we do this with and for our children?

Put Yourself in your Child’s Shoes

When we empathize with our children, we develop a trusting, secure attachment. You have to show them they matter. (Read the Prepared Parents tip on mattering at Tune into their needs and help them label their emotions. Our kids may not be able to express empathy because they have other feelings that are in the way, like anger, jealousy, frustration, or shame. Helping children manage these negative feelings can release empathy within themselves. Help them identify their feelings and encourage them to talk to you about why they have them.

Sometimes our brain doesn’t catch up with the emotion we’re feeling. By labeling it together you’re helping your kid pinpoint exactly what it is they’re feeling, and that’s an opportunity to put ourselves into our kid’s shoes and to feel with them. As you listen, cautiously respond. Rather than attempting to fix their emotions by saying “don’t be sad” or “get over it,” brainstorm responses that show you hear them or just tell them you don’t have helpful words right now, but you’ll listen. Hopefully our example of putting ourselves in our kid’s shoes will encourage them to try ours on, too.

Help Them Look Outside Themselves

Showing my kids photos of food banks may not be the best way to get them to look outside themselves. Talk to your kid about how to connect and ask them to make a list of ideas of what they can do to respond to others. Prepared Parents suggests these:

  • Write thank-you letters to essential workers.
  • Leave a plate of cookies for the mail carrier or trash collectors.
  • Call an elderly neighbor to check in.
  • Do something kind for a sibling.

Adopt a Worldview

COVID-19 impacts the entire world. Broaden your child’s circle of concern by talking about how the virus affects the homeless, the poor, and those living in third-world countries. This is an opportunity for a real-world learning moment right at home. Begin with a problem, question, or challenge regarding COVID-19’s global influence. Prepared Parents has created tools kids can use to create their own real-world learning moments.

Be Kind to Each Other

We are sheltering-in-place with my brother and his family. Our houses are next to each other, so the cousins are spending a lot of time together. That can be great when everyone is getting along, but with four kids ranging in age from 2 to 15, it isn’t always bliss around here. Recently my son Gabriel and my niece Catherine have been arguing a lot, and it finally got to me. I lost my cool, so I sat down with my niece because I wanted her to know I understood how she was feeling. I have been in her shoes often.

My son Gabriel isn’t always easy to get along with. He has some processing issues that mean he can get overwhelmed easily. She asked me, “Why does he do that?”

I tried to explain in a clinical way, but she just stared at me blankly. Then finally I said, “Do you ever feel the world is moving so fast that you cannot keep up and that makes you feel anxious and overwhelmed?”

She paused, thought about that, and then said, “Yes.” And in that moment, she and I both learned a lot about empathy. The best way to teach our children anything, including empathy, is to model it for them.

Even though we are socially distancing, we don’t need to emotionally distance. Talk to your kids about what is happening around us and practice empathy with them.

Mira Browne is the co-founder and executive director of Prepared Parents, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping parents raise kids to be independent, kind, and resilient using the best learning science and research. More tips and tools are available at