Seven Ways to Teach Children Empathy

Understanding someone else’s feelings

What is empathy?

Empathy is the ability to understand and feel what others feel.  It is putting yourself in another’s shoes.

When my youngest daughter was little she watched the movie, The Fox and The Hound and cried and cried at the end when Todd was attacked by the bear.  That’s empathy!

How do you teach children empathy?

Some children are just naturally more empathetic.  It may be due to their personality style or perhaps a life experience that has made them able to identify with how someone else is feeling. However, as parents and educators we can play a significant role in developing empathy in children.  

Here are some tips:

  • Create an environment where their own emotional needs are being met.  The first order of business is for the adults in a child’s life to show empathy toward them.  Children need to feel safe both physically and emotionally.  When they experience disappointing and frustrating events, is there someone who understands and supports them?
  • Encourage children to explore how beliefs, emotions and desires impact relationships.  Rather than brushing off children’s experiences and feelings, parents can explore all aspects of a situation by asking questions;  How did that make you feel?  How do you think the other person felt?  How did that influence their behavior?  What are your choices in responding to the situation? Teach children to expand their perspective by taking on the perspective of others.
  • Be a role model for empathy.  Child learn more by what we do than what we say.  Make sure that you are showing empathy in your relationships.  If you collect food for a food bank or toys for a holiday service project make the experience more real by discussing where these things go and what life must be like for the people who benefit.  Better still, involve them in a way that helps them interact with real people not just collecting a box of food items or toys.
  • Look for teachable moments.  Use real life situations, books, movies and cartoons to point out ways that others show empathy as well as to help children identify with the feelings of others.  Ask: how would you feel if that happened to you?  What would you want someone else to do to show that they cared?  To go beyond talking and imagining what it must be like, act out situations with your child.  This not only helps them empathize with others but helps them experience the choices they have in how they respond.
  • Teach that even though we are all very different, we still have much in common.  Part of understanding and appreciating diversity is recognizing that we all have the same feelings. Everyone has a  need for compassion and support. Everyone wants to know they belong.
  • Have children use facial expressions to imagine how someone else is feeling. Research shows that there is a connection between our brain and our physical expression that results in an ability to feel and understand other’s feelings.  Just the act of making an angry face or a sad face, helps us tune in to other’s emotions.
  • Help your child develop an internal sense of right and wrong.  Providing reasonable explanations and moral consequences that are not just based on rewards and punishments will help your child internalize a moral code that will serve them well throughout life.