Empathy in Children

Empathy is a complex phenomenon. Teaching empathy to your child may sound strange considering all the other challenges we face teaching them as they mature. The emotion known as empathy may be one of the most valuable lessons for them to understand and is one that more parents should spend time teaching.


Human Empathy

Being able to share emotions others are feeling and understand those emotions is what human empathy depends on. Many believe empathy is the foundation for one’s moral behavior. There is a part of all our brain’s that process first-hand experiences of pain, and this part is activated when we see others in pain. Learning how to keep our emotional reactions under control are critical for showing empathy to others. Not being able to keep a perspective or being able to control impulses, may lead your child to react to pain as if it is an assault on them.


Empathy in Children

Adults often experience trouble showing empathy and may find they have to make an extra effort in certain situations. Some may shrink from providing care to a person who’s been hurt not because they are callous, but rather they have problems coping with their own emotions at the wounded person’s situation. There are degrees of empathy, and it takes practice and understanding to develop stronger skills. This process is where as parents, we have to help our children achieve these skills. We have to help them develop:

  • An ability to distinguish their feelings from the feelings of others.
  • The ability to take another person’s perspective on situations, much like ‘putting themselves in other’s shoes.’
  • An ability to control their own emotional responses.

These are skills as grown-ups, others expect you to show. They are skills that children should know how to develop.


How to Teach Your Child Empathy

Studies have proven your child is more likely to develop a stronger sense of empathy when they are provided with emotional needs at home. When a child grows up in a home that provides them with support they can count on, both physically and emotionally, they will be more likely to extend sympathy to others. This support will lead them to offer help to others they see in distress. Studies have also shown, children growing up with strong emotional support from their parents during adverse situations are more likely to express emphatic concerns for others.


Treating Children as Individuals

Parents should treat each of their children as an individual. Treating each child as though they ‘have a mind of their own’ is of particular importance. Talk to your child about their emotional and mental state, and understand what their belief, emotions, desires are, and what they think about other people.


Teach by Modeling

Modeling emphatic behavior is important. Display and point out to your child when situations call for empathy and generate a sympathetic response from your child. When you come across a situation where someone is being victimized, talk about it with your child and how that person must be feeling.


Shared Unpleasant Experiences

Many times it helps to make your child aware of similarities they share with others. If your child can share or relate to unpleasant experiences from their life to others, it will make it easier to empathize with others. When a person, or your child specifically, can humanize others distress, they will find it simpler to respond with empathy.


Teach the Hot-Cold Empathy Gap

The hot-cold empathy gap often causes a failure of empathy or mistakes in judgment. Use moments of discomfort to induce empathy in your child. You can do this by handling situations that arise in school that has made your child unhappy or uncomfortable. Relate their experience to others and show them how they can prevent causing similar situations to others. An example would be if your child were bullied, having them understand their feelings and not wanting to create that same feeling in others by actions they could commit.

Teach your child that is more than just controlling their urges and emotions that will prevent them from making mistakes. They will need to avoid situations that tempt them and not just try to control how they react to them. They need to be taught how to think ‘smart’ and to stay away from people or situations that may lead them down a path of being unkind.


Studies on animals and the brain still have some wondering if feeling empathy is an automatic process. There is also evidence that empathy is a package of abilities. Many experts claim that empathy and emphatic concern can by shaped through you into your child by example and experience.