Empathy is the ability to understand what another is feeling and to respond with care. It’s a complex skill for anyone to develop, let alone kids.
But according to Dr. Lawrence Kutner, a Harvard-trained psychologist, children and teens with the greatest levels of empathy are seen as leaders and do better in school, social situations, and adult careers.
Luckily, children who act have several outstanding opportunities to develop empathy.
When your child plays a character, they learn to step into another person’s shoes and experience their feelings. Great acting is fueled by the emotional connection between the actor and the character, as well as the actor and the audience. Your child will naturally become more empathetic and understanding of others’ emotional experiences as they take on different parts.
In my classes, I give students exercises to help them identify the feelings and desires of different characters. One of those exercises is to first identify their own deepest wish. The majority of the kids always answer, “To become a successful actor.” I then ask why they want to become a successful actor. Most respond with, “Because it’s fun.” When I probe even deeper and ask, “Why is it fun?” they answer, “Because I get to go outside of myself and feel what it is like to live in someone else’s shoes.”
Another class exercise I use is for students to share an experience when they felt angry, scared, sad, embarrassed, etc. The other students have their backs turned and when they feel a connection or have an emotional response, they have a compulsion to turn around. This is a powerful example of identifying with others’ feelings, creating and demonstrating compassion.
Children who act will face many emotionally challenging experiences. They will encounter rejection, stress, and comparison regularly. These experiences, while not easy, provide many life lessons. When a child tastes the pain of rejection or disappointment, she will be more empathetic when others are in a similar situation.
Recently, one of my young students was being considered for a lead role in a television series. When she didn’t get it, it was a tough blow as she was so right for it and had worked so hard. The next week in class, another experienced a similar rejection. During the class break, I overheard the girl telling the boy not to give up. She told him he was one of the most talented kids she had ever met and that he’d book something big soon. Witnessing this caring and kindness was a beautiful moment for me as a teacher and also as a parent.
As a parent, you have to help your child develop empathy by talking about their feelings. Help your child develop a wide vocabulary of emotional experiences so that she can understand the difference between portraying someone who is lonely versus someone who is angry.
Sometimes kids, especially adolescents, won’t open up to parents to discuss personal feelings and emotions. As a strong proponent of acting classes for young actors, I believe this is yet another opportunity for them to explore their emotional life in a safe environment with others who are developing listening skills and their own empathic abilities. In my classes, we always start with trust exercises so students can bond with their peers and create a safe space to explore personal feelings. Once a safety net is established, kids are open to working deeper and being vulnerable. They naturally become empathetic as they identify and encourage each other. In class, they’re not competitive—they work together for the greater good of the group and cheer for each other to be their very best.
This article is reposted here with permission from Backstage.com