Teaching Young Children About Empathy

Kids can be incredibly self-centered, like the toddler who insists that every toy in the preschool classroom is hers and yells if another child tries to play with any of them. But they can also be touchingly aware of other people’s feelings, like the preschooler who hands half of his cupcake to his friend who just dropped her own. As we talked about in our post a couple of weeks ago, being able to consider another person’s feelings is made possible through empathy. And empathy is part of the social glue that helps kids to get along with other kids and adults.

Studies show that even babies show empathy towards others. For example, researchers in Japan found that when babies saw pictures of one shape attacking another, they were more likely to reach for the shape that had been the “victim” and avoided the shape that had been the “attacker”.   And babies also express concern, by cooing or wrinkling their faces, when their mothers seem to be distressed.

Even though kids seem to be ready to feel empathy from a young age, there are things that adults can do to encourage empathy. (And we do want to encourage children’s empathy because getting along well with others can lead to better physical and mental health throughout life.) One of the best ways to help children to be more empathetic is to help them understand what empathy is. If children can understand it, and recognize that being empathetic is positive, they may be more likely to do it.

Empathy can be hard thing for young children to understand, though. Adults often use the expression “Put yourself in his/her place (or shoes)”. But that can be a confusing expression for kids. Why would they want to be in that other person’s place?!? (Or, worse yet, in their smelly shoes!?)

Daniel Tiger has a much better way of explaining empathy. He sings:

“Think about how someone else is feeling. Think about how someone else feels. Maybe you can help them feel better.” (Video)

This is a great explanation because it tells kids exactly what to do.

In order to be able to think about what someone else is feeling, kids also need to be able to recognize emotions. One way to help your child with this is to name the feelings that she expresses and that you see other people and even characters in books expressing. Reading picture books together is a great way to learn about feelings because emotions make stories interesting. When you read with your child, you can point to characters and ask “How do you think she feels?”. Or, to help your child name an emotion, you can ask “How would you feel if that happened to you?

Once your child is able to think about how someone else is feeling, you can turn that into a positive experience (and encourage her to do it more often), by naming and reinforcing what she is doing.  So if your child sees her friend crying and goes over to give the friend a hug, you could say “I noticed the way that you thought about how Sally was feeling just now and you gave her a hug to make her feel better. That was really friendly!” or “You did a nice job of thinking about how Sally was feeling. High five!” And telling your child about times that you felt empathy or showing empathy to others is always a great way to teach it!

There are other ways to encourage empathy in children and we have included a few links below. But helping kids to understand how to be empathetic is the first step. So follow Daniel Tiger’s example and help your kids to “Think about how someone else is feeling!”

Other resources on teaching children empathy:

Teaching 5-year-olds about empathy: https://www.babycenter.com/0_the-caring-child-how-to-teach-empathy-age-5_67146.bc

Helping older kids develop empathy: http://www.pbs.org/parents/child-development/age-7-social-skills/empathy

Encouraging empathy in kids: https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/seven_ways_to_foster_empathy_in_kids

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