Teaching Children Empathy in Practical, Effective Ways

Girl comforting her friend

Helping kids understand the perspective of walking a mile in someone else's shoes is no easy task. Empathy is a difficult emotional skill to teach kids, but learning how to be empathetic is crucial to their development and well-being. All parents should know why and how to teach a child empathy, so their kids grow up to be kind, helpful, happy human beings.

What Is Empathy?

Empathy is not only challenging to teach, but for many young and old alike, it can be difficult to understand. Dr. Brené Brown sums up what empathy is by explaining that empathy is made up of four primary qualities:

  • Remaining judgment-free
  • Recognizing the emotions that others are experiencing
  • Acknowledging that other people have varied perceptions and views of the world different from their own
  • Communicating empathy to another person

The characteristic of empathy is modeled to children by adults in their lives, and sometimes taught explicitly. It is a skill that is taught at an appropriate development level, and it is practiced over a large span of time.

What Empathy Is Not

The flip side of understanding empathy, is knowing what it isn't. What characteristics is a child exhibiting that makes one wonder if they require empathy training and teaching? Clues parents or teachers can note when wondering if a child is missing an empathy chip include when a child is:

  • Making loud, rude comments to other people about their appearance or their actions
  • Exhibiting socially inappropriate behaviors, like throwing things off shelves, breaking another child's toy, taking things from a sibling
  • Displaying insensitivity when someone else shows emotion

Why Teaching Children Empathy Is Difficult

Teaching physical skills, like walking, talking, and reading, is a walk in the park compared to teaching kids higher-level emotional skills like empathy. Instilling empathy in children is tricky, but why?

Empathy is an abstract concept that involves the understanding and mastery of many other concepts. It is a layered and complex human feeling. Once children begin to understand empathy, they will:

  • Realize that other people think and feel differently than they do. They begin to regard other people's feelings and discern that they are different from their own.
  • Notice and recognize general emotions that humans experience. They know what happiness, sadness, anger, and fear look like in a person's face, tone, and physical demeanor.
  • Identify another person's emotion and correctly match it with a personal response for helping them.
  • Regulate their own emotions.

The Importance of Instilling Empathy in Kids

Children who learn how to be empathetic and who practice empathy in their daily lives grow up to be the game-changers of the world. They are the ones who will accept others regardless of their differences. They are the people who lean in when something is wrong, putting an end to bullying or maltreatment of peers, even when it poses a risk to them personally. They generate courage and the power to be the good they hope to see in the world around them.

Kids with high levels of empathy grow into leaders, innovators, and vital human beings who put the needs, feelings, and thoughts of others before their own, setting an example of compassion for humanity.

Teaching Empathy to Toddlers and Young Children

A true understanding of empathy doesn't begin to develop until kids are around seven-10 years-old, give or take a few years, depending on their emotional maturity. This doesn't mean that parents and educators should put fostering empathy in kids on the back burner for the first decade of their lives, however. Kids can start to get the gist of being an empathetic human being when they are very young.

Model Empathy

You are the role model and the standard your kids emulate, so demonstrate empathy for them in your own daily life. Don't only show them in actions, but use empathetic statements when communicating with children.

  • I understand how difficult this seems.
  • You are right to feel sad about this.
  • I wish I had been there to help you when that happened to you.
  • What you are explaining to me sounds incredibly frustrating.
Girl hugs Dog

Care for Other Living Beings

It is widely believed that owning and caring for pets is a good means of teaching children empathy. When young kids are assigned the responsibility of caring for a living creature, they experience how much another living being depends on them for happiness and survival.

Develop Empathetic Language

By discussing emotions, kids create a better understanding of the basics that they need to build empathy later on in life. Verbally walk through emotions that children are feeling. Teach children to use "I-When" statements like:

  • I feel sad when you take my toys.
  • I feel happy when we read together.

Furthermore, begin discussing other people's feelings, to help children better understand how others might feel about something and why. Use dialogue like:

  • Mommy is feeling frustrated because everyone is yelling and screaming right now.
  • Daddy looks happy because you are helping him fix that bike tire.
  • Your friend Johnny is sad because he is missing his mommy. What can we do to help him feel happier?

Fostering Empathy in Older Children

Older children can continue to build on and grow their empathetic tendencies. After a foundation is laid, help kids see different thoughts and perspectives, feel emotions along with other people experiencing them, and recognize emotion in themselves and others and how to navigate solutions.

Teaching Cognitive Empathy

Older kids and teenagers can understand cognitive empathy. This is when people really dive into what others are thinking and how they are feeling. They can truly aim to realize and visualize what it feels like to walk a mile in someone else's shoes. This is different from emotional empathy, which is the ability to feel something along with another person, and show a willingness to assist a person in distress. Teaching cognitive empathy requires in-depth conversation, and oftentimes literature is used to highlight the concept.

Practicing Effective Listening Skills

You can't be a truly empathetic person if you cannot actively listen to what someone else is telling you. Older children and teenagers can work on honing their listening strategies, helping them to become more empathetic in nature.

Activities That Encourage Empathy

These easy activities help kids connect the concept of empathy to people in their lives and the world around them.

Identifying Emotions Via Pictures

Parents and educators can help young children learn about emotion via picture cards. Have a wide array of pictures that showcase people displaying different emotions. Kids flip through the pictures and identify what the people in the images are feeling. As kids get savvier with this exercise, add more images to the pile. An extension of this activity is to ask children what emotion they see in the image and then ask them to identify an opposite emotion to the image.

Taking a Temperature Check

Parents and teachers can do an emotional temperature check with children. It's a simple exercise where adults ask kids how they are feeling, and kids reflect on this and respond appropriately and honestly. Over time, children learn to take their own temperature check, asking themselves how they are feeling, and then handling the particular emotion properly.

Role-Playing

Younger and older children can engage in empathy role-playing. Little kids can use simple prompts like:

  • One person's picture rips. How might they feel? The partner then has to identify the emotion and respond appropriately.

Older children can work with more complex scenarios like:

  • You notice a homeless person as you walk through your city. What might they be feeling? How are you feeling? How do people show compassion for a stranger?

Teaching and Practicing Mindfulness

Little kids, older kids, and even adults can benefit from a crash course in practicing mindfulness. The ability to identify and tap into your own emotions is the first step toward having the ability to tap into the feelings and perspectives of others. Teach those in need of empathy training to dive into their own feelings. Teach gentle exercises to reduce stress, as stress can create a barrier to mindfulness. Deep breathing, coloring, and the basics of meditation are all easy mindful experiences that children can use as they begin a journey into becoming more empathetic toward themselves and others.

Writing an Emotion Journal

Journaling is an excellent way to reflect on where you have been and the progress you have made. Kids can keep an empathy journal, where they write about how they are feeling, why they are feeling this way, what might make them feel better, and what tools they can use to help process any negative emotions they are experiencing.

The Benefits of Instilling Empathy in Children

Teaching kids to become more empathetic human beings benefits them throughout their life. They develop crucial skills and positive traits from learning empathy.

Better Mental Health

Those who tend to be empathetic in nature have a better mental health status. They feel connected to other human beings and the world around them, and they see goodness and positivity in many aspects of life. Having a positive demeanor towards others helps generate better attitudes and feelings about themselves.

Happy preschool students playing together and sharing in classroom

Positive Relationships

Those who display acts of empathy regularly have stronger relationships than people who are not empathetic. Children learn to form meaningful, reciprocal connections with others, and grow up continuing to foster positive relationships with other people. Empathy allows a person to connect and relate to someone else personally and deeply, forming a solid bond.

Academic Success

Students who have empathy in their emotional toolkit also tend to do better academically. To be academically successful, children need to be confident, inquisitive, and have the ability to communicate their needs to others effectively. While all of these traits are key in academic success, they are also emotional skills that are taught in some capacity during empathy training.

Increased Communication Skills

Communication between people is essential. Without communication, maintaining healthy relationships is nearly impossible. Empathetic people ask questions of those they see struggling. They notice people's moods, wonder what is wrong, and lean in to help relieve a situation. All of these things increase their ability to communicate effectively with others, both verbally and nonverbally.

Tolerance and Acceptance of Others

Teaching empathy helps children grow into tolerant people who accept others, regardless of their differences. They learn to cease judgment, give people a chance, hear others out before writing them off, and imagine other people's situations and perspectives.

Lessons Like Empathy Take Time and Patience

Learning how to be empathetic towards others is a high level emotional skill for kids. Teach empathy consistently; and be sure to demonstrate empathy in your own life. Regardless of how brilliant or well-rounded children are, empathy will need to be repeatedly taught and reinforced before it becomes rote.

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Teaching Children Empathy in Practical, Effective Ways