Teaching Empathy to Kids
What hopes and dreams do you have for your kids?
Do you want them to do well in school? Have good friends who love and support them? Build a successful career doing what they love? Find a healthy, loving relationship and start a family of their own some day?
As both a marriage counselor and a parent myself, I can tell you that these are the dreams that most parents, including myself, have for their children. There’s one skill that’s essential for making all of these dreams and many others a reality: empathy.
Empathy is the ability to understand another person’s emotional experience, and to connect with it from a compassionate place. Empathetic people have healthier relationships, a wider circle of support, stronger self-esteem, and greater success in every area of life. Fortunately, we all have the power to help our kids hone their empathy, and this article will help you do that.
I’ve also created an episode of the Love, Happiness and Success podcast on this topic. My guest is Georgi B., a parent coach and a marriage counselor on our team at Growing Self. Georgi is sharing some valuable parenting tips on teaching empathy to kids. You can tune in on this page, Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen.
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Teaching Empathy to Kids
The connections we have with our caregivers when we’re very small are where we begin to hone our incredible human capacity for empathy. It’s the skill that allows us to understand the emotional experiences of others, and to connect with them in a healthy and loving way.
Every parent has hopes and dreams for their children, and empathy is a crucial skill for making those hopes and dreams a reality. It has a major impact on self-esteem, the trajectory of your career, your friendships, and especially on your romantic relationships. Without empathy, it’s impossible to truly thrive.
To raise happy, healthy kids who can love and be loved, parents must model empathy for their children, and actively help them cultivate it in themselves. Here’s how.
What is Empathy?
Empathy is the basic building block of connection and understanding. Being empathetic means being able to connect with someone on an emotional level, because you can understand how they’re feeling and thinking. This skill allows us to care about other people’s wellbeing as much as our own, foster love and mutual respect, create healthy levels of trust, and build closeness and connection in our most important relationships.
At the most basic level, empathy is the understanding of another person’s emotional experience, which children begin to develop at a very young age. Translating that understanding into helpful actions is a more complex task that takes some practice and maturation to master. In other words, just because your toddler understands that another child is sad doesn’t mean they’ll know how to respond to them — in fact, they may do something that makes the situation worse, like shove a toy in their face — but it does mean the basic roots of empathy are beginning to form.
How to Teach Empathy to Kids
You can help your child develop empathy by modeling it in your relationship with them. One easy way to do this is to put yourself in their shoes and help them label their emotions, especially during “teaching moments” or when you’re disciplining.
For example, when your child is crying in the store, you might say something like, “I understand you’re feeling really frustrated about not being able to have the candy. I know you were really looking forward to getting some candy, and that now you’re feeling disappointed and sad.” Just acknowledging your child’s feelings is incredibly validating. It helps them to recognize how they’re feeling, which is the first step in learning how to manage their emotions and connect with those of others.
It’s also important for you to remain in touch with your own feelings. When you aren’t aware of how you feel, it’s impossible to understand another person’s inner experience. Building your emotional intelligence will help you develop self-compassion, which helps you remain empathetic in your relationship with your children.
Your relationships with other people are also an opportunity to model empathy for your kids, especially in your relationship with your partner. Do you validate each other’s feelings? Do you empathize with them? Do you show that how your partner feels matters to you? These practices not only improve your relationship with your partner, they model a healthy, loving relationship for your kids.
Here are a few other activities that can help you teach empathy to your children:
- Naming emotions, for yourself, the child, and others — even characters in movies. Go beyond happy, sad, and mad and dig into the more nuanced emotions, like overwhelmed, hopeful, or annoyed. Check out the feelings wheel for more ideas.
- Role playing is a way to encourage your child to put themselves in someone else’s shoes. You can ask them to act out a situation with you, like working hard to make dinner, or being the new kid in school, and imagine what it would be like to be in those positions, and what you’d want from the people around you.
- Acting with puppets or dolls is another fun variation on role playing, especially for young children.
- Encouraging your kids to journal about their feelings, or to write from another person’s perspective, can be a good activity for building understanding and empathy.
Attachment and Empathetic Kids
When you’re there for your children and you meet their needs, they learn to trust and rely on you. This is how the strong attachment bond between parents and children forms, and it provides a roadmap that they’ll use for the rest of their lives in forming close attachment relationships.
When the attachment bond between parents and kids isn’t strong and secure, children are more defiant and more prone to behavioral problems. Because the child hasn’t experienced their parent as someone who can be relied on to meet their needs, they don’t fundamentally trust the parent to know what’s best for them. When the parent puts their foot down, the child fights back, leading to power struggles and trust issues in the relationship (not that every power struggle between children and parents is about an attachment problem!).
Empathy is essential for meeting your child’s emotional needs and forming a strong, secure attachment with them. In order to trust you and rely on you, your kids need to know not only that you’ll provide them with food and shelter, but that you care about how they feel and what they think. When you make a mistake as a parent (as every parent does), they need to see that you’ll acknowledge it and make a meaningful apology. That demonstrates empathy, and turns a mistake into an opportunity to teach your child something valuable — how to repair a relationship.
Empathy and “Gentle Parenting”
One parenting approach that emphasizes modeling empathy is gentle parenting. If gentle parenting could be summed up in a mantra, it would be “I love you, and I won’t let you.” Gentle parenting is about connecting with your child through validation, empathy, and listening. When you practice gentle parenting, you still set limits with your child, but you help them understand why those limits are in place, which helps them learn to trust and respect your limits.
Gentle parenting also teaches self-regulation skills, which are essential for empathizing with others, because it’s difficult to empathize with someone else when you’re emotionally flooded by stress or anger. You can show your child what it looks like to regulate your emotions by talking them through your process. For example, if you’re feeling upset about something, you might say, “I’m feeling upset right now. I think I need to take a break and calm down so we can keep talking about this. I’m going to sit down and take a few deep breaths. Do you want to join me?”
When you show kids how to validate and accept their own feelings, you teach them that nothing they’re feeling is bad or wrong. Adults who never learn that are prone to self-esteem issues and shame around their feelings. It also helps them learn to manage their emotions. To self-regulate, you first have to have some awareness of and acceptance for what you’re feeling.
If you practice gentle parenting, your children will likely begin to share their feelings with you more readily. This is not always as easy as it sounds, especially when the emotions they share stir up emotions in you. When your child tells you they’re upset, or angry, or sad about something, try not to respond with defensiveness or by telling them they’re making you upset by sharing how they feel. Focus on listening, validating, and responding with empathy before sharing your own feelings.
Raising Empathetic Kids
Empathetic adults have healthier relationships, stronger self-esteem, and they act with kindness and compassion. To help your kids develop their capacity for empathy, you need to form a secure relationship with them and model empathy every day.
Want more resources on raising empathetic kids? Here are a few books on the topic that Georgi recommends for you:
- “Raising Good Humans” by Hunter Clarke-Fields
- “The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read” by Philippa Perry
- “How to Stop Losing Your Sh*t with Your Kids” by Carla Naumberg
- “Scaffold Parenting” by Harold S. Koplewics
- “The Danish Way of Parenting” by Jessica Joelle Alexander & Iben Dissing Sandhal
- “The Importance of Being Little” by Erika Christakis
- “Ready, Set, Go!” by Sarah Ockwell-Smith
- “The Conscious Parent” by Shefali Tsabary
- “The Whole Brain Child” by Dr. Daniel Siegel & Dr. Tina Bryson
- “No Drama Discipline” by Dr. Daniel Siegel & Dr. Tina Bryson
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Teaching Empathy to Kids
The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast with Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby
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Music in this episode is by Mersiv with their song “Future Destination.” You can support them and their work by visiting their Bandcamp page here: https://nightbeats.bandcamp.com/. Under the circumstance of use of music, each portion of used music within this current episode fits under Section 107 of the Copyright Act, i.e., Fair Use. Please refer to copyright.gov if further questions are prompted.
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self. She is a licensed psychologist, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and a board-certified coach, as well as the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.
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