Nurturing Empathy in Your Quiet Child

Pomon moved my son to tears.

Not the creatures themselves, but an episode of the cartoon show. In it, an old lady in a big house befriends a cute little Pokémon. When the old lady leaves to travel, she gives the creature a locket to keep until she returns from her trip. Except she doesn’t come back. She dies, and the Pokémon, lonely and confused, spends years haunting her mansion, looking at the locket, missing its elderly friend. The story ends well: the Pokémon meets the woman’s daughter and becomes her companion. But the long period of fear, sorrow, and abandonment the Pokémon suffered affected my little 7-year-old.

I didn’t realize this at the time. Although I was just a few feet away, preparing dinner in the kitchen, my quiet guy didn’t come to me in his sorrow. He buried himself between two fat couch cushions to cry in secret. Later, in the solitude of the shower, he cried again—his sobs hidden by the splashing water.

Finally, just before bedtime, he exploded into tears in my wife’s arms, upset not just about the show but by how much the show continued to affect him. He expressed bewilderment: how could a cartoon cause a person to cry? He was embarrassed by this intense emotion, feelings so strong they leaked out from the inside through his eyes.

“It’s okay,” my wife told him. She held him till he calmed down and fell asleep.

The next morning, I said the same thing. It’s cool, I told him, how stories affect us. They let us experience another person’s life so closely that we feel it ourselves. Being open to that is a type of human superpower. Like with any superpower, trying to suppress it or losing control over it can be harmful, but when used properly, empathy—even though it may distress us or seem like a vulnerability—makes us strong. I talked about the times when I cried at stories. I told him, for example, that during the movie Finding Dory, I became tearful for almost the same reason he did—seeing Dory’s parents anxiously waiting and waiting for their lost child to return home.

Emotions are tough for any of us to talk about. In many ways, our culture implies that mastery of your mind means keeping feelings shallow and that anger is power and empathy is a problem. In our current cultural climate, being considerate of other people’s emotions has been vilified as being “politically correct,” as if expressing psychological pain means you’re overly sensitive, too easily offended. For boys in particular, traditional attitudes persist, which equate crying with weakness and femininity (both of which, under the patriarchy, mean the same thing). This is despite examples of accomplished men, from sports stars such as Lebron James to the President of the United States, openly shedding tears of joy and sadness.

For quiet kids, especially hypersensitive ones, emotions can be particularly tough to experience and discuss. They may feel scared, like Felix did, at the intensity with which they feel things. They might prefer to process their emotions internally, on their own, instead of talking them out with mom or dad or another trusted adult.

So, how best to help a young child in your life process strong feelings?

Listening is important

For me as a dad, it’s very important to help my son feel safe in sharing his innermost thoughts and feelings with me. This means listening when Felix opens up and never mocking him or telling him to “lighten up” or “toughen up.” In response to strong emotions, I share kind words of understanding and gentle hugs.

In one of my most formative childhood memories of emotional expression, my dad made fun of me for crying at a movie. “Boys don’t cry” was a message I often received, implicitly and explicitly. I felt ashamed to be “caught” crying. Yet still, I continued to cry (if mutedly) at books and movies. As I entered adulthood, I witnessed friends, mostly women, and romantic partners weep too. Because of their warm wisdom, and with lots of therapy, I came to understand that I’d never be able to have completely honest, healthy relationships with others until I stopped considering my tears a weakness.

I’ve spent a lot of time teaching myself to be comfortable with expressing emotions, communicating vulnerability, and accepting others’ emotions with grace. I’ve had to overcome my own upbringing to be my best self. It’s especially key for male caregivers to outwardly express compassion and sensitivity when their children express their feelings since images of men acknowledging and responding to another person’s emotion in a sensitive, mature fashion are still all too rare.

Showing my own emotions matters too

When I model emoting around Felix, I’m consciously normalizing the process of feeling and expressing feelings. I want to help remove the stigma against emotions that Felix may be picking up from the schoolyard or television.

I also want to demonstrate that it’s possible to feel things without being overwhelmed. For example, listening to the news recently has brought tears to my eyes, both for terrible and optimistic reasons. I want to talk about these sensations with Felix so that he may witness that though I’m scared and worried or proud and excited, I’m still able to function as his father and as a person. I want him to see that there’s nothing to be frightened of about feeling. Quite the contrary, empathy expands a person’s horizons and deepens their knowledge of the world, other people, and themselves.

Developing empathy and expressivity can take time

Kids come to their emotions in different ways and on their own timetables, and we must be understanding of that. Empathy, like many other psychological traits, arises slowly, over the course of years, and not all children will move at the same pace. Science shows that our prefrontal cortex, responsible for personality development and other tasks, doesn’t finish developing until our mid-twenties. I believe that it’s only since becoming a father that I’ve begun to approach my own potential for emotional maturity, especially in regards to compassion and empathy.

At first, our children will experience every challenge in a personal way, thinking of how it affects them. But as they age, they’ll begin feeling for others, stepping out of themselves and into another’s perspective. That truly is a phenomenal thing to witness—as breathtakingly beautiful as a first smile. But like that grin, empathy takes nurturing and practice to become a habit. That’s where we play an important role as parents—most importantly with our quiet kids, whose articulations are all too quickly stifled and swallowed.

So when your children cry for others, don’t hush them—hold them. Tell them that it’s all right to feel the things they feel and that they’re taking part in a human experience that’s defined our species for generations. Once, it happened over a fire, with stories from a human mouth. Today, it happens via cartoons of magical creatures. The means may have changed on the outside, but inside we’re the same. Our hearts beat blood to brains capable of feeling the pain of others. This common bond between us is one to cherish—not suppress.