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  • No degree of mindfulness training, meditation, or self-focus can cure a troubled soul like giving to others with a full heart.  Tweet This
  • The ability to give to strangers is a critical experience for the development of morality, character, and empathy. Tweet This
  • One key to mental well-being: serving others. Tweet This
Category: Parents, Family Life

I am often asked how to raise empathic, sensitive kids who are not entitled and self-centered. While there are many factors, the most important is that parents model sensitivity and empathy in their interactions with their children. Another important factor is that parents model the importance of giving to others in a hands on way by volunteering in their communities. When we deprive ourselves or our children from contact with those in need or in pain, we deprive ourselves and them of a rich experience of human connectivity and purpose. 

Our purpose is not to take in life but to give. The mental health crisis our children face is due, in part, to the unfortunate fact that we live in a me-centric society, which focuses on individualism over collectivism and community. This impacts our children whether we are focusing more on work than on family, more on me time than time with our loved ones, or more on material pursuits rather than relational ones.

Of course, the oxygen-mask adage of “put the mask on yourself, first” is true. If we are depleted or completely deprived emotionally or physically, we will not have the internal resources to give to others. However, giving to others offers us plentiful inner resources and a feeling of fulfillment that no hedonistic pleasure can even come close to imitating. According to Dr. Susan Albers, a psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic, volunteering activates the reward center in the brain and releases the chemicals that make us feel happy, such as endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin. In addition to giving to our families and friends, the ability to give to strangers is a critical experience for the development of morality, character, and empathy. Hopefully, these are all things we learn through our families.

When one is overly focused on individual needs and desires, there is an emptiness that can only be filled by human connection. No degree of mindfulness training, meditation, or self focus can cure a troubled soul like giving to others with a full heart. 

The ability to give to strangers is a critical experience for the development of morality, character, and empathy.

Tara is a 19-year-old college student I treat who has suffered from depression that manifested in addictive behavior since the age of 15. She comes from an intact family who provided her with material comfort and sent her to good schools. However, she was encouraged to “develop herself” in sports and in extracurriculars but never exposed to any expectation or requirement to give back. Her parents were busy professionals who did not belong to a faith-based community, and Tara had no connection to anyone less privileged than herself, other than through school, which required a certain amount of community service as a prerequisite to graduate. But Tara saw this requirement as a burden. She never witnessed her parents joyfully volunteering or serving others. When asked, her parents expressed a sense of obligation about volunteering or exposing themselves or their children to those in need. “It’s so hard to find the time,” they answered when I inquired. My prescription for Tara was that she volunteer to help others while at college in order to help with her depression. The only requirement was that it be something she was interested in or that felt like an injustice to her. Through therapy, Tara was able to connect with the fact that she loved children and felt for those who were neglected or abused, so she ended up volunteering in a nearby foster care agency. She found that the only thing that stimulated a sense of well-being was spending time with these children. Tara mourned that she had not been exposed earlier to giving to others.  

Empathy begins at home. If we are empathic toward our children and show them how to be empathic toward others, then we model a deep love of self and a deep responsibility for healing the world. In Judaism, one of the pillars of our faith is T’kun Olam, or healing the world. Judaism teaches that the ability to heal oneself is contingent upon healing others through our giving and generosity. If we as parents show empathy in our words and actions, if we take joyful care of those less fortunate or privileged rather than viewing them as an obligation, then our children will understand kindness as a lived experience rather than an abstract. It doesn’t matter what you choose to do as a family: volunteer at a local food bank, homeless shelter, or animal shelter; collect Christmas gifts for foster children; help tutor children with learning issues; open your home to a refugee family; or teach interviewing skills to high school students so they can find jobs. Wherever you choose to serve together, finding your “true north” of giving can be a balm against the hardness, insensitivity, and selfishness of the world. It’s also a key to not only your children’s mental health but your own.  

Erica Komisar, LCSW is a psychoanalyst and author of Being There Why Prioritizing Motherhood in the First Three Years Matters and Chicken Little The Sky Isn’t Falling:  Raising Resilient Adolescents in the New Age of Anxiety.