How to Teach Your Child Empathy

Teaching empathy to children is one of the

most important lessons we can give them.  

Empathy is the awareness of the feelings and emotions of other people.  It is the ability to see things from others perspective and it compels us to relieve another person’s suffering.  Empathy helps us build relationships, develop strong communities and be kind and caring people.   It is a key element of Emotional Intelligence, the link between self and others, because it is how we understand our own emotions and the emotions of others.  

Empathy is a mature concept that should be introduced to children from a very young age.  We do know that when children learn to be empathic early in their development, it can lead to much stronger empathy skills later in life as they become adults who treat others with compassion, respect and kindness. 

Research has shown that empathy is not simply inborn but can actually be taught.  So, how can parents cultivate empathy?  The following tips will help you encourage your child to be more empathetic.

Model Empathy for your child and for others

Children learn empathy from watching us and from experiencing our empathy for them.  One of the best ways to teach your child to be empathetic is by modelling the behaviour yourself.  Listen to what your child has to say, acknowledge their feelings and the feelings of others, show them how to be selfless and pay careful attention to their emotional needs. 

When children show negative emotions, acknowledge how they are feeling and talk through the situation with them.  Young children often need help understanding what they are feeling, so give the emotion a label for them.  For example, if they are crying say “You seem upset, how can I help”.  When children see you respond to difficult situations in a empathetic way, the will internalise those behavious and learn to react in the same way.  

Connect Feelings, thoughts and behaviours

Being aware of other people’s feelings is important, but it’s even better to then talk about those feelings with your child.  When discussing with your child about feelings, connect behaviours with your child so that they can understand cause and effect.  For example: “Lily is feeling sad because you took her ball away.  How can we make Lily feel better?”

Another way to teach your child about cause and effect can be done through reading books.  Talk to your child about how the behaviours of the character.  What might they do next?  By connecting these scenarios to your own child’s experience, you can give them a better understanding between their thoughts, feelings and behaviours. 

For older children, encourage them to be aware of the consequences of behaviour and see things from other people’s points of view. You can do this by asking questions like, “How do you think they are feeling?”, “Why do you think they are upset?”, “What could we do to help them?”

Provide opportunities for children to practice empathy

All children are born with the capacity for empathy, but it needs to be nurtured throughout their lives.  It requires both practice and guidance. Learning to be caring is like playing sport or an instrument – the more you do it, the more it becomes a part of you.  Regularly considering the feeling of others will help your child get a better understanding. 

You can do this as a family at home by creating opportunities to be empathic and highlight for them how being kind can benefit everyone involved: “That was very kind of you to help your sister when she lost her favourite toy. I bet she’ll remember that and want to help you when you need it!”

This will foster more of the same types of behaviour in the future.

It is clear that empathy is one of the most defining and important human qualities and is the greatest gift we can teach our children in this modern world of social media and reality TV shows.  Strong empathy skills can set children up for success in life, and we as parents, caregivers and teachers, play a powerful role in achieving this success. 


Making care common Project – Harvard University


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