How to Teach a Child Empathy
We all want our children to be kind empathetic children and we hope we teach them well enough that they become kind empathetic adults. But, How do you teach a child empathy? There are multiple factors that play a part in building up compassionate empathy. Continue reading and find out how to teach a child empathy.
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What is Empathy?
Empathy is the ability to understand and share another person’s emotional state.
The word “Empathy” comes from the German word “Einfühlung”, which means “feeling into.”
Jean Decety & Yoshiya Moriguchi of BioPsychoSocial Medicine say that “empathy is a complex form of psychological inference in which observation, memory, knowledge, and reasoning are combined to yield insights into the thoughts and feelings of others”
It takes four major parts of the brain to really show empathy towards others.
When you look at it this way you cannot have empathy with only one part. All four areas are intertwined and need parts from each one.
What is the Difference between Empathy and Sympathy?
Empathy and sympathy can sometimes get mixed up. Someone may think the other person is being empathetic but in reality its sympathy, there is no emotion involved. Empathy is experiencing someone’s feelings. Sympathy is caring that someone is going through a difficult situation and you offer them comfort. But you don’t necessarily feel anything about the situation yourself. If someone were to tell you “my dog ran away.” To be empathetic you would feel sad along with them. To be sympathetic you may respond with “that’s unfortunate” but you don’t feel sad.
Empathy helps you connect to others emotionally – “I have been through something similar”. Sympathy is just to understand – “I can understand what you’re going through” with no emotions involved.
At What Age Do Children Develop Empathy?
At two years old children can begin showing signs of empathy by trying to help the other person. Often by sharing or comforting them. This is usually shown by the child offering a hug or patting the upset child on the back. Although it can be seen at two years old, you should not be too concerned if your child is not showing signs of empathy before 5 years old.
True empathy does not start blossoming until around eight or nine years of age. The part of the brain that helps with empathy, and putting yourself into someone else’s shoes, is the prefrontal cortex. It is the last part of the brain to mature and some specialists say it does not fully develop until late 20’s. But just because it does not blossom until eight or nine does not mean you shouldn’t be teaching your child what it feels like to give and to receive empathy to others.
How Early Do Children Show Empathy?
Although, empathy can be shown in infants, it looks a little different. When someone is distressed near an infant, the infant picks up on it and they get distressed as well. So although it is not what we typically see when we think of empathy, you can think of it as the first initial signs of empathy.
As children are growing and developing you may notice that your child is showing empathy differently than how you would assume they should be. It could be possible they are still showing empathy but they are simply showing a different type of empathy. There have been three types of empathy noted.
What are the 3 Types of Empathy?
There are different ways of feeling the same emotion. We can be happy that it’s Friday with the weekend ahead of us. But it is different than the happiness that is felt at a wedding. The same goes for empathy.
Decety and Moriguchi agree with many psychologists that “empathy implies at least three different processes: feeling what another person is feeling; knowing what another person is feeling; and having the intention to respond compassionately to another person’s distress.”
Emotional (affective) Empathy
Affective Empathy is the capacity to respond with an appropriate emotion to another person’s mental state. Enid Spitz of Heartmanity adds “This type of response might seem disconnected from the brain and thinking, but as [Daniel] Goldman points out, emotional empathy is actually deeply rooted in a human’s mirror neurons. All animals have neurons that fire in a certain way when they see another animal acting, making them relate to that action in their own body and brain. Emotional empathy does exactly that with the feelings someone experiences in reaction to a situation.”
This type of empathy helps to really feel what the other person is feeling and is good for careers like coaching, management, and HR. If you have a strong affective empathy you tend to see a sappy commercial or a touching story on the news and your eyes start to well up.
Cognitive Empathy is different from emotional empathy as someone can be good at empathizing emotionally but they may not able to understand the other person’s perspective. This type is all about thoughts and understanding. You can imagine how it would feel but you’re not feeling the emotions like with emotional empathy.
Cognitive Empathy helps in understanding diverse viewpoints, negotiations and to motivate other people. When we see someone is really happy doing something it motivates you to do the same, to be happy just like them. Think of a child laughing and smiling while they are spinning in circles getting dizzy. Another child watching sees how much fun the first child is having and wants to feel happy like that too, so they start spinning.
This type of empathy is not as connected with the big feelings. Think of a patient going to see their doctor. The doctor uses cognitive empathy to understand what they patient is going through but they don’t start crying and feeling the emotions along with the patient. You use cognitive empathy to help you guess what would make someone going through that situation feel better.
Compassionate (somatic) Empathy
Compassionate empathy is empathy in action and considers the whole person. With compassionate empathy it includes the other types balanced together. You want to understand (cognitive) why they are upset but you also want to comfort them by sharing their emotional experience (emotional).
Compassionate empathy is the most beneficial and most sought after type of empathy. Every situation is different and will need different amounts of cognitive vs emotional empathy. Sometimes the person just needs you to share their emotions, other times the need more understanding and help to fix the situation.
What Do You Do When Your Child Shows No Signs of Empathy?
First, look back and compare the three types of empathy. Could it be that your child shows signs of cognitive empathy or emotional empathy? Most people think of compassionate empathy when they hear the word empathy and assume that if they are not both emotionally connected and understanding that the child is not empathetic.
But, just because your child doesn’t jump up to help every person that is hurt does not mean that your child does not have empathy. They may display another type of empathy.
Empathy is partly biological and partly from learning experiences and physical maturity.
If your child can see someone else is upset but doesn’t understand why they are upset or what they can do about it then the emotional empathy doesn’t come out looking like a kind gesture. It may seem as if your child is not empathetic at all.
Is the child doing unkind things and looking like they enjoy it? They could be attention seeking. The child does not necessarily need discipline and harsh punishments. They may need some one-on-one time so you can figure out what they really need and get to the root of the cause. The child may be empathetic but they also may be doing things on purpose to get attention. Negative attention is still attention.
If you are still concerned that you child is not showing signs of empathy speak to your child’s doctor and have them get checked for other issues, such as a psychological issue blocking their understanding.
What Causes Lack of Empathy?
There are multiple possible causes to the lack of empathy. Some can stem from not being shown and taught empathy as a child and some come from a psychiatric condition. Some of these conditions include autistic spectrum disorders, psychopathy/antisocial personality disorders, borderline and narcissistic personality disorders, and alexithymia.
According to Wikipedia, “A difference in distribution between affective and cognitive empathy has been observed in various conditions. Psychopathy and narcissism have been associated with impairments in affective but not cognitive empathy, whereas bipolar disorder and borderline traits have been associated with deficits in cognitive but not affective empathy. Autism spectrum disorders have been associated with various combinations, including deficits in cognitive empathy as well as deficits in both cognitive and affective empathy. Schizophrenia, too, has been associated with deficits in both types of empathy. However, even in people without conditions such as these, the balance between affective and cognitive empathy varies.”
And also state a “lack of affective empathy has also been associated with sex offenders. It was found that offenders that had been raised in an environment where they were shown a lack of empathy and had endured the same type of abuse, felt less affective empathy for their victims.”
If you notice a lack of empathy when your child has become a preteen or teenager it could be a sign of a psychiatric disorder. If you notice additional warning signs you should speak to a professional, usually your family doctor is a good place to start. These warnings could include cruelty to animals, frequent lying, arson, stealing, defiance, bullying others, aggressive behaviour, and unresponsiveness to punishment or lack of remorse.
How to Show Empathy to a Child?
Amanda Morin of Understood talks about something she calls the platinum rule. Instead of the golden rule “Treat others the way you’d like them to treat you.” The platinum rule says “Treat others the way they want (and need) to be treated.” I really like this new wording as what is okay for one child may not be okay for another. Some children may need to have space when they are upset where as others may want someone to give them a hug.
This rule goes along great with what we do at the center I work at. Instead of saying sorry we suggest to the children to ask “are you okay?” and “how can I help you feel better?” This way the children are not assuming what the other child wants or needs. Sometimes the answer is “just leave me alone” or it might be “I need a hug.” Either way, the child hurt is being acknowledged and their needs are being respected. This also helps show them that everyone may need something different when they are upset. It helps to build an understanding of what someone may need if they are not voicing it.
Empathize Through Reflection
Eileen Kennedy-Moore of Psychology Today talks about six ways to empathize with your child through reflection. You can read them more in depth here. But the basics are as follows:
- Gentle inquiry – “You seem… (upset, angry, sad etc.) What’s the matter?”
- Label and acknowledge – “You are feeling (happy, sad, frustrated etc.) because…. (situation)”
- The cautious guess – “It sounds like you’re feeling (embarrassed, upset, hurt etc.) about…. (situation)”
- The exclamation “How… (exciting, frustrating, wonderful, disappointing etc.)!
- The general paraphrase “It is hard for you when…(situation).”
- The implied ideal “You wish….”
Kennedy-Moore warns of “One final caution: Business people are often trained to say, “I understand you feel…” This phrase doesn’t work with kids because it shifts the attention to “I” the adult rather than “you, the child, who wants and needs to feel heard.” Also, if you’ve ever had someone say, “I know exactly what you’re going through!” when that person absolutely didn’t, you know how annoying it is to be dismissed and talked over in this way.
Although children sometimes appreciate hearing stories of their parents’ childhood struggles, jumping too quickly to those can leave your child feeling misunderstood or even shoved aside. Use the word “you” and avoid “I” to keep the focus of your empathic comments on your child.”
Use ‘I’ statements
I know this contradicts what Kennedy-Moore says about “I” statements. However, when a child is screaming, or having very big feelings – i.e. non-verbal, they are not usually able to discuss what is going on. You can use the “I” statement to acknowledge their feelings and wait for them to calm down. Once they are calm (and verbal) you can use some of those reflection statements where the focus goes back onto them. This can also help them in identifying what emotions they are feeling.
Instead of saying “you are screaming too loud. You need to calm down.” Try saying “I see that you are upset, but I cannot help you while you are screaming like that. When you have calmed down, I am ready to listen.” Once they have calmed down you can go back to reflection statements. “You seemed really upset and frustrated. Do you want to talk about what happened?”
Don’t Immediately Try to Fix Their Problems
You cannot prevent your child from feeling sad, mad, angry, frustrated and any other difficult feelings. But you can support them through those feelings. To help them through it you need to just stop and listen before you do anything.
Often when children are really upset they aren’t necessarily looking for an answer, they just need someone to listen. So when your child comes to you crying, sit back and listen to their problem. Ask them if they need help. They may have already fixed their problem and they just need to vent/ talk it out, just like adults do.
Many times we (adults) can get all worked up over something that we are able to solve ourselves. But we just need to vent and let out those emotions. Many times when people are venting and talking things out they figure out the solution on their own.
For example, I work at an outdoor based childcare. In the winter it can get quite cold out. There is a large bin of small gloves for the children to use if their own get wet or were forgotten at home. A child (4 years old) comes up complaining of cold hands. Yes a teacher could automatically go and get gloves for that child but the child is not learning anything from that.
So instead the teacher replies with something like “I hear that your hands are cold, how can we fix this?” The child says “put gloves on.” The teacher agrees and praises “Yes, gloves. That’s a great idea!” And then the child runs off, gets gloves, and puts them on.
The children have complete access to the gloves at all times. Some children will automatically go and get them and solve their own problem. Other children need to verbalize it first, even if they already know the solution. This can happen when they are used to the adult always fixing their problems before the child has had a chance to try for themselves.
Ask Open-Ended Questions
Ask questions that cannot be answered with one word or a short phrase. When we ask open-ended questions we are being empathetic. It allows them to speak what is on their minds and without feeling like you’ve assumed the outcome of the situation. It also allows you and the child to go into more depth exploring the problems and possible solutions. Instead of “how was your day?” try “What was good (or rough) about your day today?”
Actually Listen to What They are Saying
To be empathetic you need to be able to listen, verbally and non-verbally, to what the child is saying. Listen to the words along with their tone of voice, and watch their body language. When they have finished you can repeat back to them what you understood. “I hear you are upset because…..” This gives a chance for any misunderstandings to be corrected. This also shows the child that you are actively listening and you respect their perspective and feelings.
How to Build Empathy in a Child
Empathize With Your Child and Model Empathy for Others
Making Caring Common Project of Harvard Graduate School of Education say that “Children learn empathy both from watching us and from experiencing our empathy for them. When we empathize with our children they develop trusting, secure attachments with us. Those attachments are key to their wanting to adopt our values and to model our behavior, and therefore to building their empathy for others.”
Support Their Development of Self-Regulation Skills
The children who are able to regulate their negative emotions have a tendency to show greater empathetic concern for others.
Point Out What They Have in Common With Other People
Children tend to have more empathy towards people or things that are familiar. When they discover that someone else is similar to them it’s easier for them to put themselves into that other person’s shoes. Studies have proven that schools that have fostered multiculturalism have shown increased empathy in their students.
Point Out and Teach Children to Help Read Facial Expressions
You can do this through practicing facial expressions into a mirror. Give them a scenario and ask what face that person would have. To make it fun for them I would do it randomly when you are looking into a mirror. My son often likes to check his teeth out in the mirror after brushing them. That moment would be a good time to do it. And then keep it very simple like “If I banged my toe on the coffee table what face would I have?” “If you got to have ice cream for dinner what face would you have?”
You could also do it as a guessing game – one person does the facial expression and the others guess what emotion they are. If you are an ECE this would be a perfect game for circle time.
You can also teach them about different faces when they are around others or when reading a book. Maybe you’re at the park and another child has fallen down. You can bring it to your child’s attention and relate it to them if possible. “That child looks really sad. She fell down and banged her knee. Do you remember when you fell down and banged your knee?” This not only brings the facial expression to their attention, but it also connects the facial expression and what they have personally felt.
Do Nice Things for Others
Model empathy by doing kind things for other people, whether you include your child or just do it in front of them. This could be something simple like you notice an elderly person struggling to open a door and you quickly run up to help them with the door and tell them to have a good day. Children don’t know how good it feels to help someone, until they have actually done it.
Work on Perspective-Taking
Role playing with your child, or while they are playing with others, can help your child to understand someone else’s perspective. As they role play they take on another person, or animals, perspective. They see, for a moment, what it might be like to be in those shoes. Play, talk, and ask questions to prompt perspective-taking while they are happy and calm. It is very difficult for children to try and see someone else’s perspective when they are upset.
Read Stories. Read Lots of Stories
Books are an amazing tool to help your child understand someone else’s perspective, and what they may need. They also have so many other benefits beyond empathy. And you can start reading books with your child from day one. Many books come in paperback for the older ones and board book style for the younger ones.
Talk About Stories
Children show better emotional comprehension when they are able to discuss the stories during, and after, them. Talk about the main characters and how they are feeling. Keep it a relaxed conversation while you read, and after, the story. Try not to give a long lecture on the moral of the story or drill them on what every character on every page is feeling.
Refer Back to Books you Have Read
After you have read a book you can refer back to it to help children make the connection as to how someone else may be feeling. My son read the book Franklin’s Secret Club. After reading that book he create different clubs around the house or at daycare based on what they were doing.
At home he would often call it The Boys Club, since it was him and my husband playing. That was all great until he started saying that my mom and I couldn’t join because we weren’t boys. Even if I didn’t want to play, I would often refer back to the story and remind him of how Beaver felt when she wasn’t allowed to join Franklin’s club. He would think about it and very quickly change his rules so that anyone can join as he was remembering what happened in the story. It only took a couple reminders and the exclusion parts of the clubs quickly disappeared.
Books on Building Empathy
A SICK DAY FOR AMOS MCGEE
BY: Philip C. Stead
A zookeeper, named Amos McGee, is always helping the animals. From reading bedtime stories to the owl to hanging out with the shy penguin so it doesn’t get lonely. But one day Amos is sick and he has to stay home. Together the animals go to his house to return the favor.
HAVE YOU FILLED A BUCKET TODAY?
BY: Carol McCloud
This book is based on a metaphor – that everyone “carries” an invisible bucket that can be either be filled or dipped into. When you do kind things your bucket fills and so does the other person’s. However if you’re being mean or being a bully you are dipping into the other person’s bucket, but it also empties yours as well.
by Phillip Hoose and Hannah Hoose
This book gives the perspective of the ant right before a boy was about to squish it. This book is great for making children think about how their actions may affect someone else. It helps to ease into discussions around compassion, as the end is left up to the reader.
ALL ARE WELCOME
by Alexandra Penfold
All Are Welcome celebrates diversity as it follows a group of children at school where everyone is welcomed with open arms. The students learn from and celebrate each other’s backgrounds and traditions.
THE SMALLEST GIRL IN THE SMALLEST GRADE
by Justin Roberts, illustrated by Christian Robinson
Salley McCabe is the smallest girl in the smallest grade and she sees everything. But one day she has had enough and she stands up to the bullies on the playground. She learns that one small girl can make a big difference when she speaks up.
PASS IT ON
by Sophy Henn
This book sends children the message to pass on the kindness. If you see something wonderful, smile a smile and then pass it on. If you come across something funny, let it out the laugh and be sure to pass it on. The pictures are bright and cheerful and bring up feelings of pure joy while encouraging sharing and kindness.
EMMA AND THE WHALE
by Julie Case, illustrated by Lee White
Emma and the Whale is a touching story about a girl who comes across a baby whale that has washed ashore. She imagines how the whale feels and how scared it must be. She stays with it pouring water on it to keep it wet while they wait for high tide. Its a great book on teaching children the value of helping and protecting nature and that animals need our empathy too.
LITTLE BLUE TRUCK
By Alice Schertle
An amazing book filled with trucks and animals. It tells the story of a little blue truck that gets stuck in the mud while trying to push a dump truck free. Thankfully all the farm animals are near by and they work together to get both trucks free.
CHOCOLATE MILK, POR FAVOR! CELEBRATING DIVERSIT WITH EMPATHY
By Maria Dismondy
Gabe is new to school and doesn’t speak English. One boy, Johnny, goes out of his way to be unkind. Gabe is really good at soccer and Johnny is jealous and frustrated that he doesn’t have the same skills. He quickly realizes that how frustrated he feels when he can’t do the same soccer tricks as Gabe, must be how Gabe feels when he can’t speak English. But in the end Johnny learns that having a friend means being a friend first. The story illustrates that kindness is the universal language to everyone.
By Derek Munson
Summer was going great until a new kid moved onto the block. He became the neighbourhood enemy. Thankfully there was a recipe that would get rid of enemies, Enemy Pie. But part of the recipe calls for the boy to spend the whole day playing with the new kid. Through this story the little boy turns the best enemy into his best friend. It shows the difficulties and ultimate rewards of making new friends.
I AM HUMAN
By Susan Verde
This simple book celebrates being human and everything that goes along with it. Being human means that we are not perfect and we make mistakes. That we can hurt others with our words, actions, and silence, but we can also be hurt as well. That being human means that we can make our own choices, that we can turn a poor choice into a good choice, or a bad day into a good day.
I WALK WITH VANESSA
With strictly pictures, no words. I walk with Vanessa shares the story of a girl who inspires the community to stand up to bullying and to be kind. A little girl witnesses a little boy being mean to Vanessa. It is on her mind all night long thinking about what she saw. In the morning it comes to her, to go and walk with Vanessa to school which inspires all the other children to do so as well.
THE INVISIBLE BOY
By Trudy Ludwig
Brian is the invisible boy. He never gets picked for games the other children are playing or invited to birthday parties. But when a new boy joins his class all that changes. Brian goes out of his way to make him feel accepted after other students made fun of his lunch. They team up and work on a school project together and helps Brian to come out of his shell and no longer be the invisible boy.
EMPATHY IS YOUR SUPERPOWER
By Cori Bussolari
Emma and Emmanuel are superheroes that model easy, age-appropriate ways to practice empathy. This book helps kids to learn how to put themselves into someone else’s shoes using real life examples that children can relate to. it also features reflections and discussion questions to open up the conversation about being empathetic.
THE SNEETCHES AND OTHER STORIES
By Dr. Seuss
This classic Dr. Seuss tale tells the story of sneetches with starbellies and sneetches without. They eventually become friends and no longer notice the difference between the two types of sneetches. This book also has other stories that talk about compromise, that sometimes standing out is better than blending in, and that empathy can transform a stranger into a friend.
SHARING A SHELL
By Julia Donaldson
A story of three sea creatures that share a shell. At first the little hermit crab does not want to share his shell. But the crab quickly learns that maybe the blob and the brush could actually help it, and they all become friends working together.
GIRAFFES CAN’T DANCE
By Giles Andreae
Gerald the giraffe wants nothing more than to be able to dance. But he’s got crooked knees and thin legs that make it a bit difficult. He watches as all the other animals have a dance and he just gets laughed at. He gets some encouraging words from an unlikely friend who tells him that maybe he can dance, just to a different tune. Gerald gains the courage and finds his tune and becomes the best dancer.
The Franklin the turtle series are a great bunch of books that tell relatable stories for children. I refer back to many of those books when speaking with my son. Some of our favourite titles are:
- Franklin’s New Friend
- Franklin’s Secret Club
- Finders keepers for Franklin
- Franklin’s Christmas Gift
- Franklin and Harriet
- Hurry up Franklin
- Franklins valentines
- Franklin has a Sleepover
and so many more…
Empathy is a skill that takes many years to master. We need to make sure that we are doing all that we can to help children develop their empathy. Things like modeling empathy to others and to them, reading stories and talking about them, and talking them through their real-life situations.