Teaching Empathy
makes a difference

Teaching empathy to kids is very important, because according to research kids are not born to be empathetic - it must be learned. We, as parents, play a huge role in shaping and developing the empathy in our children from the infancy by guiding them and being a good example.

teaching empathy

In This Article:

What is empathy?

Empathy is a skill we all need. It is a selfless act which helps us learn more about people and relationships with them - it is a desirable skill beneficial to ourselves, others and society.

Empathy is effective communication and creative imagination.

Effective Communication

It happens when we can understand other people. This involves

  • active, focused listening, clarification,
  • your ability to express yourself verbally and non verbally,
  • being able to avoid the barriers of communication such as (distractions, different opinions, expectations, cultural differences).

Creative Imagination

It can help you empathize with another person much better.

  •  First you need to see the particular situation from his perspective.
  • In order to do that, you need to imagine how is to be “in his shoes” and how is the situation different from yours.

In fact, it is easier to empathize to other people when we can relate to them better, when we share more common experiences and views.

So, if we understand other person’s feelings and we can imagine their perspective we often want to help them. We are empathetic. 

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        Ideas for Teaching Empathy

Teaching empathy should start from day 1 by forming a secure attachment with your child.

Studies show that children who formed secure attachments with their parents, have greater empathy towards others, stronger emotional coping skills and moral sensibilities. So the prep work must be done during infancy.

Be an example

Be a kind and empathic person yourself. The best way to show and encourage empathy is through caring for other people’s feelings and trying to help them when they are in distress.

Usually everyday life brings a lot of opportunities for a parent to enhance teaching empathy.

Letting an elder person to get in a line in front of you at the grocery store will teach kids:

  • to think of elder people and it will give you an opportunity to explain later why it is hard for them to stand in line.
  • to know that sometimes it’s ok to break rules for good deeds.

Taking some new harvest from your garden or baking some goodies for a neighbor or a total stranger without a reason, will teach your kids:

  • sharing
  • good manners
  • caring and thinking about other people without expecting anything in return.

Be empathic to your own children too. Notice even the smallest achievements they accomplish and support them through the tough emotions they have.

Label Emotions

In order for children to feel different emotions they need to be able to name them. Just saying words like happy, sad, mad might not express their true feelings, so teach them emotional vocabulary. The more words they know, the better they will express their feelings  and will understand others.

Use a game of emotions to introduce more emotional words to your child’s dictionary.

Analyze emotions of other people

The best way to practice this activity is through the game “I wonder what are they feeling now” (created by my daughter).

As we sit at the park as far as we can from other people (but still able to see everybody), we pick one person (a child or an adult, or both) to guess what his feelings are now.

We name the emotions and we try to understand why they are feeling that way.

For example:

- “Why do you think this boy is so aggravated”?

- "Why is that lady so excited?”

With some practice you will be amazed how your child will be able to recognize even the smallest emotions caused by verbal or nonverbal cues.

Use role-play games to get into other people shoes

Let the kids pretend to be an old person who is having hard time to hear, talk, touch and see.

Put some cotton in their ears, some rubber gloves and sunglasses with the transparent tape on them. Ask children what they feel when they cannot see well, when they can’t hear clear voices or they can’t grab things with their hands.

Praise with all your heart

Commenting on good things your child did is crucial for the continuation of kind behavior. Try to be very specific and honest. Kids feel when we say things and we don’t mean it.

For example, saying  “good girl”  doesn’t really impact them especially after they hear it 20 times a day. Instead, you could say:

“ It was very kind of you to offer the cookie to that boy. I think he was very hungry”.

Teach basic manners

Being polite to others will teach your child respect. Start with simple things like ‘thank you’, ‘you are welcome’, ‘please’. The best way for a child to learn good manners is through your example. If you constantly use those words, kids automatically will catch them and use them daily too.

Give them responsibilities

Simple tasks like taking the trash out or wiping the dust will help them understand better that no job is easy.

Always encourage to think about other people

It is unnatural for kids to think of someone else first. Respect that and try to compromise.

If your child is asking for a treat at the store ask him: “What do you think your little brother would like as a treat?”

Read books that teach empathy

While reading, make sure to point out the feelings of characters and discuss them together. For example, “Would you feel left out if this would had happened to you?”

Don’t forget to relate the stories in everyday life by reminding a child that “do you remember how Tom felt when he was left out?”

Teach tolerance

It is a lifelong lesson. Many adults haven’t developed this skill yet. So the sooner you start explaining to your kids that it is OK to want different things and it is OK to think differently. We still have to respect that person even if our opinions are different.

Teach volunteering and charity work

There are countless opportunities nowadays on where to volunteer or do charity work. Look at your child’s personality and interests to decide what fits him best.

Volunteering opportunities with your child

teaching empathy
  • hospitals,
  • animal shelters,
  • nature centers,
  • homeless shelters,
  • child-care centers,
  • centers for developmentally disabled children or adults,
  • community outreach centers,
  • local religious organizations,
  • senior centers,
  • libraries,
  • aquariums,
  • zoos,
  • historical landmarks,
  • museums,
  • state parks and recreation centers.

Also check out these websites: 

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Teaching empathy is important

  • Kids who haven’t developed much empathy tend to be more violent, experience more negative emotions and have more aggression and anger which can cause tantrums and other unwanted behavior. (Resource)
  • Kids who develop empathy are more helpful and sensitive to other children’s feelings. They tend to share better and be a better team members during the game, because they have better social skills, they have better relationships with other kids and they adjust much easier to a new environment.

This article was inspired by my friends: Anna, Lauren and Mindy, as I watched them teaching empathy to their kids in a most natural, sensitive and brilliant way. 

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