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Parenting · Social Emotional Learning ·

How to Help Kids Develop Empathy

Mieke Vanderborght
Mieke Vanderborght Ph.D. Developmental PsychologyMieke is a parenting expert with over 20 years of experience working with kids and families. Her research has focused on the role of media and technology in kids’ lives and has been published in top academic journals. She has also spent 10 years (and counting) of collaboration with Common Sense Media.
How to Help Kids Develop Empathy

Empathy is one of those buzz words that have made their way into the popular discourse for a good reason – many of them actually. Check out Part 1 of this two part series to find out more. Read on here to learn some concrete ways that you as a caregiver can help your kids develop empathy.


Make values clear to develop empathy


It may not always seem like it, but kids listen intently to what you say, what you call attention to, what behaviors you praise, and which you ignore. They put all that information together to form their ideas about how the world works and what’s important. Caregivers, this is your chance to be mindful of what world you’re creating for them. Use your words and actions to make your values clear. If empathy is something you want to instill in your kids, emphasize it in your regular interactions. Recognize when they or others do things that show empathy.

Talk about how your family cares about others and makes an effort to help those in need. Instead of asking about what they learned in school, what grade they got, or who won the soccer match, mix it up and ask something they did that was nice. Ask if they helped a friend, a classmate, or a teacher at school. Assume that your kids care about others and help them define themselves that way too. 


Teach emotional literacy skills for empathy


To practice empathy - particularly emotional empathy – kids need to know how to recognize emotions. To do that, kids can start by learning how to identify and name a variety of emotions, both in themselves and in others. For example, what does it feel like when I’m angry, sad, frustrated, joyful? And what do those emotions look like in others?


Emotional literacy is also about knowing how to manage emotions. Empathy can actually feel quite uncomfortable because it often involves taking on other people’s negative emotions. So, the more kids can manage their own emotions, the less they’ll feel overwhelmed by the emotions of others and the more they’ll be able to show concern.  But if kids have strong coping skills, they’ll be better able to handle it. 


Practice perspective taking to develop empathy in children


Help kids develop cognitive empathy by guiding them through considering other people’s perspectives. Observe and notice situations around you and ask kids to describe how they think the people involved feel. You can do this for things that happen to other people or to your kids themselves, and for positive experiences – like when an olympic swimmer wins a gold medal, or negative ones – like when an olympic skater falls during a routine. 


Another great way to develop perspective taking is to role play. You can each pretend to be someone else and imagine how that person would feel and what they would say or do in a variety of situations. This exercise can explore completely made up scenarios. Or, you can act out things that have actually happened. For example, if your kid had a disagreement with a friend, ask your kid to pretend to be the friend and act out what happened, describing how they felt and why they acted the way they did. As they consider what their friend was feeling and how the friend perceived the event, they might be able to act with more empathy towards their friend and fix whatever went wrong.


Understand and break down roadblocks towards acting with empathy


Practicing compassionate empathy can be tough. Knowing what you can do to help others isn’t always easy – even for adults. Even if kids have the motivation to help someone else, they may not know exactly what to do, or feel comfortable doing it. When you notice an opportunity for kids to act with empathic concern, help them overcome any blocks by working together to brainstorm things they can do. Ask kids to consider who the people in need of help are, what kinds of things they might need, and what your kids would like if they were in a similar situation. 


It can also be useful to recognize that sometimes a lack of ideas is not what blocks kids from acting with empathy. Sometimes helping others is complicated by other feelings like shame or fear. Let’s say two siblings are having a disagreement about a toy and the older sister hits her little brother. Without realizing how much strength she has, she ends up hitting her brother a lot harder than she’d intended. When the little brother starts to cry, the sister may feel empathy for him, but may also feel shame for acting out or she may fear getting in trouble. Instead of helping, she may withdraw or act defensively. A caregiver in this situation can calmly point out the poor behavior choice, but leave room for understanding the sister’s experience and give her a chance to act with empathy. It could sound something like this: “I know you really wanted to play with this toy and you were feeling frustrated that your little brother kept taking it away, but hitting him was not a good choice. Do you see that he’s hurt now? What can you do to help him feel better?” Emphasize that acting with empathic concern is always a good choice, and make sure to acknowledge that choice whenever you see kids making it. 


Emphasize similarities to develop empathy


It seems pretty basic but can easily be overlooked. The more you highlight the humanity in others, the easier it is to have empathy for them.. When kids believe that underneath any superficial differences, other people are really quite similar to them, they can better understand those people’s emotions and perspectives. Help emphasize that kids may live in different places, have different traditions, eat different foods, and so on. But despite that, we all have similar needs, desires, fears, and emotions. 


Read a lot. 


Think of all the traditional folk tales that are meant to transmit an important moral lesson. Storytelling can be a powerful teaching tool, and it’s no different for empathy. Stories light up the imagination, introduce new ways of thinking and new worlds, transport kids to new places, and can help them see things from different perspectives. In particular, reading fiction may have especially interesting effects. Some research suggests that people who read fiction are better able to understand others, empathize, see things from another’s point of view, and to imagine what others are thinking or feeling. As you read, build on that foundation by asking kids how they think different characters are feeling at different points in the story and what they would do if they were one of the book characters.   


And last, but absolutely not least: model empathy yourself


It’s actually very likely the single most important piece of parenting advice. More than anything else, kids learn by watching the people around them. And so, the best way to help kids develop empathy is to show empathy yourself. This is true in how you treat other people, but also in how you treat your kids. Be empathetic in your parenting. Demonstrate respect and interest in their feelings and experiences. Show genuine concern when they’re in distress and lend a hand if it feels appropriate. When they make mistakes or misbehave, or you have a disagreement, try to understand where they’re coming from. Use that as a guide as you decide how you’ll handle the misbehavior or work through the disagreement. 

 

And, let your kids see you demonstrating empathy with others. Share how you feel when you see others in distress. Talk with them about what those people might be going through, how they might feel, and why. Involve your kids in coming up with ways to help. 


Lastly, have some empathy for yourself. Raising kids isn’t easy. Show self-compassion and appreciate all the hard work and difficult choices you make every day as you try to guide your little ones through life. Focusing on a few north star parenting goals, such as helping your kids develop empathy, can be a great way to help keep yourself on track.



Interested in finding out more? Check out this selection of primary sources and other related resources:

Bariso, Justin. “There Are Actually 3 Types of Empathy. Here's How They Differ--and How You Can Develop Them All.” Inc. Magazine, 19 September 2018, https://www.inc.com/justin-bariso/there-are-actually-3-types-of-empathy-heres-how-they-differ-and-how-you-can-develop-them-all.html. Accessed 7 June 2022.

Borba, Michele. UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World. Touchstone, 2017.

Briggs, Saga. “How Empathy Affects Learning, And How To Cultivate It In Your Students | InformED.” Open Colleges, 1 November 2014, https://www.opencolleges.edu.au/informed/features/empathy-and-learning/. Accessed 7 June 2022.

Dewar, Gwen. “Do babies feel empathy? Studies suggest that they do.” Parenting Science, https://parentingscience.com/do-babies-feel-empathy/. Accessed 7 June 2022.

Goleman, Daniel. “What Makes a Leader?” Harvard Business Review OnPoint, Summer 2014, 

  1. 24-33.

Kanakogi Y, Inoue Y, Matsuda G, Butler D, Hiraki K,  and Myowa-Yamakoshi M. 2017. Preverbal 

infants affirm third-party interventions that protect victims from aggressors. Nature 

Human Behaviour 1(2): 0037.

Kanakogi Y, Okumura Y, Inoue Y, Kitazaki M, and  Itakura S. 2013. Rudimentary sympathy in 

preverbal infants: Preference for others in distress. PLoS ONE 8(6), e65292.

Liddle MJE,  Bradley BS and Mcgrath A. 2015. Baby empathy: Infant distress and peer 

prosocial responses. Infant Mental Health Journal 36: 446–458.

Mar, Raymond A., et al. “Exposure to Media and Theory-of-Mind Development in Preschoolers.” 

Cognitive Development, January-March, 2010, pp. 69-78.

Marsh, Jason. “Do Mirror Neurons Give Us Empathy?” Greater Good Science Center, 29 March 2012, https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/do_mirror_neurons_give_empathy. Accessed 7 June 2022.

Mongrain, M., et al. “Practicing compassion increases happiness and self-esteem.” Journal of Happiness Studies: An Interdisciplinary Forum on Subjective Well-Being, vol. 12, no. 6, 2011, pp. 963-981. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10902-010-9239-1.

Nichols SR, Svetlova M, Brownell CA. 2009. The role of social understanding and empathic 

disposition in young children’s responsiveness to distress in parents and peers. Cogn Brain Behav. 13(4):449-478.

Paul, A.M. “Reading Literature Makes Us Smarter and Nicer,” Time, June 3, 2013, 

http://ideas.time.com/2013/06/03/why-we-should-read-literature.

Roth-Hanania R, Davidov M, and Zahn-Waxler C. 2011. Empathy development from 8 to 16 

months: early signs of concern for others. Infant Behav Dev. 34(3):447-58




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