The Step-By-Step Guide to Teaching Your Child Empathy
Takeaway: Empathy helps us be more caring/connected people, but it’s a challenging skill to develop. So, we parents need to help our children understand the roots of empathy (e.g., recognising and honouring emotions, taking other people’s perspectives, etc.) and encourage them to exercise their ‘empathy muscles.’
Empathy helps us build meaningful social connections.
Empathy refers to our ability to see the world through someone else’s eyes. It means putting ourselves in their shoes and experiencing the problems and feelings they’re going through. It helps friendships and strengthens relationships.
This ability to connect is something children build gradually over time.
Empathy isn’t something your child either has or doesn’t have. Instead, it’s a skill she’ll build over time. It begins in infancy, once she discovers that she’s an individual, separate from Mummy, Daddy, and everyone else. She’ll start to recognise that these other people have feelings and emotions that are different from hers. And this will set her on a journey to learn more about ‘emotional regulation’ – both in herself and others. A journey she’ll continue even as an adult. Learn more about emotional regulation.
The effort is worth it because it leads to a more fulfilling life.
Children with a well-developed sense of empathy live a more rewarding life. They find it easier to relate to family and friends, make up after arguments, and craft a tight-knit community that helps each other through tough times. It’s like a superpower that simplifies day-to-day living and can help build more successful careers.
What makes empathy this powerful is that it combines emotion and thought.
Empathy builds off two key elements. First, there’s emotion – i.e., our body/mind’s reaction to whatever is happening around us. And we can usually pick out emotions without trying: for instance, even an 18-hour-old infant can sense the moods of people close by.) But empathy also needs thinking. We need to spot an emotion in someone else and then think, ‘What if that were me?’ Children take a while to learn this second step, but it becomes almost automatic once they do.
The first roadblock to empathy is that we often teach our children to override their emotions.
We often unintentionally teach children to override their emotions. For example, when rushing through a busy morning, we’ll likely dismiss our child’s complaints about her breakfast. This is a valid, practical response, but it subtly signals that her feelings don’t matter. And the more often she overrides her emotions, the more disconnected she becomes from them – making empathy almost impossible. (How can she care about someone else’s feelings if she’s told to ignore her own?) So, we must first help children recognise and honour their emotions. With the breakfast example, you could say, ‘Yes, these cornflakes aren’t that great, right? I don’t like them either. What should we do about it?’ Of course, you’ll reword this and choose a calmer time to bring it up. But it’s about acknowledging and validating her feelings at some point. You’re teaching her that it’s okay to feel things and that no emotion is ‘wrong,’ however uncomfortable or inconvenient it might be.
A ‘feelings wheel’ can help children describe their inner world more accurately.
Your child can’t process her experiences without first figuring out what she’s feeling. And here’s where a ‘feelings wheel’ can help her pinpoint complex emotions by combining simpler, more obvious ones. For example, is she feeling ‘anger’? Or is it more like ‘frustration’ or ‘aggressiveness’? Emotions become easier to deal with when we can name them properly. (It’s like telling your doctor that your arm is ‘itching’ rather than ‘hurting.’ In both cases, you’re uncomfortable, but the treatment will depend on the type of discomfort.) With older children, the feelings wheel alone should be enough. And for younger ones, make it visual by crafting feelings flashcards. You’ll write the name of an emotion on one side of each flashcard and draw a matching emoticon on the other. Alternatively, you could use magazine cutouts that capture the essence of the emotion.
As your child understands her emotions better, she’ll find it easier to help others with theirs.
The better your child is at processing her emotions, the greater her capacity for empathy. And for younger children, in particular, you can speed things up through pretend play. For instance, pretend that their doll or action figure is unwell and ask them to take care of it. Encourage them to imagine how it feels, what would make it feel better, and how they can help. You can make this more abstract with older children by discussing their favourite movie characters’ feelings. For instance, what could your child do to help Nemo (from Finding Nemo) feel less scared and alone? Or, what does she think Simba (from the Lion King) felt when Mufasa died? Was he sad? Afraid? Angry? These games will help build your child’s social awareness – i.e., her ability to read facial expressions and body language to decipher someone’s feelings. And this has a feedback effect where, as she gets better at reading others’ emotional cues, she also gets better at reading her own.
It’s about practice, practice, practice. You’ll put your child in new situations and gently correct her mistakes.
Put your child in situations that exercise her ‘empathy muscles.’ For instance, you can encourage her to join new clubs and meet different types of people. Or you could give her gratitude tasks like writing thank-you notes or telling a friend how special she is. (For younger children and toddlers, practice might involve playing in front of a mirror – so they can see their facial expressions and yours.) Whatever the activity, remember that empathy takes time to develop. So, let your child make mistakes, point them out gently, and show her what to do instead. Remind her that there’s always a way to correct mistakes, beginning with a heartfelt apology.
Crucially, you’ll want to work on yourself first and model good behaviour.
Children do what we do, not what we say. So, you’ll want to model empathy as often as possible – describing your emotions, considering others’ feelings, openly correcting your mistakes, etc. And if everything we’ve discussed in this post seems overwhelming, remember that you can always ask for help. The Ed Psych Practice offers face-to-face and online assessments, consultation, advice, and problem-solving strategies for parents, nurseries, schools, and universities in London. We have psychologists, paediatricians, and therapists who can help assess your child and offer guidance and support. To consult with us or set up an appointment:
- Phone: +44 (0) 78 3344 7356
- Email: Office@TheEdPsych.com
Want to see how else you can help your child? You might enjoy some of our other posts.
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- How to Make Change Less Scary for Children With Autism
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- The Winning Strategy to Limit Your Child’s Summer ‘Learning Loss’
- Here’s How to Make Summer Reading Fun For Your Child
- Why Your Child’s Future Could Depend On Her Self-Esteem
- Why Smart Girls With Autism Need Extra Attention
- A New Approach to Homework for Children With ADHD
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