Developing Empathy

Most children begin to develop empathy as toddlers.  Your child’s ability to understand, value, and respect others’ thoughts and feelings will mature over time.  You can help your children to understand others’ feelings and feel for others in many ways.

  • As you’re reading stories together, pay attention to the characters’ faces.  Every now and then, ask your child, “how does he feel?”  If your child responds correctly, you can add onto it.  For example, if a character looks sad, you can say (in a sad voice), “yes, he’s sad.  Poor guy.  All of his friends are playing and he’s left out.”  You can even ask further questions like, “what would make him feel better?”
  • When you play with your child, you can exaggerate empathy when you are taking care of a baby doll or another toy.  Even more fun, you can play a game such as “Mean Pirates,” where you don’t care about anyone’s feelings or following the rules.  You can shock your kids by playing the “mean guy” and taking a toy from them, saying (in your best pirate voice), “ahhh, I don’t care if this is your favorite toy!  I’m going to take it because I’m mean and I don’t care about your feelings or about anyone else!  I only care about myself and I WANT THIS TREASURE!!”  Your child will then have the chance to teach you about being kind.
  • Use incidental teaching.  When your child tells you a story about something that happened to a classmate or friend, you can ask questions about how their friend or others felt (as opposed to what they did).
  • Model empathy.  Be kind and show respect to others, including your children.  Be mindful of how you to talk to and about others.
  • Don’t protect your child from their feelings all of the time and don’t shield them from every sad thing in the world.  Even if you know your child will be upset, you may choose to tell them the truth about something that might make them sad.  You can always add that there are ways to make it better or to share your feelings – if someone is sick, you can write them a card.  If they see a sad commercial about animal shelters, they can donate dog toys or food to a shelter.  You can use these opportunities to teach them about how to do good.
  • In various stages, you can teach your children about charity.  If you are donating used clothes, toys, or home goods, involve your children as much as you think is possible.  As your children get older, take them to volunteer at organizations that are important to your family.

For more suggestions, read this article on Teaching Children Empathy.

Posted in Articles, Emotional Regulation, Parenting, Preschoolers, School-Aged Children, Social Skills.