Helping Your Child Develop Empathy
Katie Wimmer, Graduate Intern Fall 2022-Spring 2023, Loyola University Chicago School of Social Work
What is Empathy?
Empathy can be defined as the ability to recognize other people’s emotions and understand how they are similar or different from your own. Sympathy is often confused with empathy however empathy can lead to sympathy. Sympathy is simply the concern for other people. The difference between the two is that empathy is the understanding of the other person’s emotions and sympathy is the understanding of the other person’s situation.
How do Children Develop Empathy?
There are three components that someone needs to practice empathy. These include affect arousal meaning the child is tuned into the social interaction, understanding emotion, and emotion regulation. Each component can be individually developed or worked on as a whole.
Can a Neurodiverse Child Learn Empathy?
There is a common misconception that children with certain diagnoses such as autism, ADHD, or conduct disorder are unable to express empathy. This is completely false! These children either show empathy in a different way or struggle with one of the three components. With practice and social-emotional education, these children are just as capable of showing empathy as their neurotypical peers.
How do I Help My Child Develop Empathy?
There are a number of ways to help your child develop empathy:
The first piece of developing empathy is identifying feelings. Your child needs to knowwhat different feelings look like and feel like before they are able to understand that others have the same feelings. Here are some tips for helping your child to identify their own and other people’s feelings:
- When your child is experiencing a strong emotion you can label it for them. This might look like saying “You look angry.” Or “Your tears are showing me that you might be sad.” Then as your child why they are feeling a certain way. If they need help you can prompt them. For example “Are you feeling angry because your block tower fell down?”
- When you are reading with your child or watching a show stop and ask the child how they think the character is feeling. Ask “How do you think the little girl feels when her block tower falls?” or “I can see that the boy has a frown how do you think he is feeling?” Focus attention on the situation or body language to help your child learn the clues to look for when figuring out how someone else is feeling.
- Talk to your child about how people can feel different feelings about the same situation. You can do this by comparing your and your child’s feelings. For example, during snack time you can serve a snack you know your child likes but you do not like. Ask your child how they are feeling about having that snack then tell them how you are feeling. Ask if it is the same or different. This can be done around any event such as bedtime, storytime, or bath time. Ask your child how they are feeling, identify how you are feeling, and ask if they are the same or different. You can then talk about how people feel different feelings about the same situation.
Expressing empathy is very difficult when your own emotions are overwhelming you. Often when a child does not show empathy it is because their own emotions are blocking them from doing so. The way to alleviate this problem is to help your child manage their own emotions. Here are some tips:
- Model coping with your own emotions in front of your child. This can look like taking a break, taking deep breaths, counting to ten, etc. You can say “I am feeling frustrated that I cannot find my keys I am going to take 5 deep breaths.” Then model taking 5 deep breaths. As adults, we often cope with our strong emotions subconsciously because we are so used to doing it. Including your child when you are managing your own emotions encourages them to do the same.
- Introduce tools for managing emotions when your child is calm. When your child is in a heightened emotional state it will be difficult for them to engage with new emotion management tools. When you are in the car, in the bath, or playing together introduce ways to manage emotions such as deep breaths, taking a break, asking for a hug, etc.
Children can learn empathy both from watching you show empathy and from experiencing empathy from you. Here are some tips for modeling empathy:
- There are many different ways you can empathize with your child. It can look like being aware of their emotional and physical needs, showing genuine interest in their day-to-day lives, and understanding their individual personalities. These might seem like simple things but they can really go a long way. Asking your child how their day was or what they did at school shows them that you care and models how they can show others that they care.
- Children are always watching and learning from you for better or worse. They are taking in how you treat those around you. Showing empathy and respect to service workers, a new family at the school, or family members teaches your children how they should be interacting with these people as well. Engaging in community service with your child is a great way to do this. Even donating their old clothes or toys can demonstrate caring for others even if we do not know them.
If children see themselves as people who are kind and caring they are more likely torespond empathetically. Here is a script to use to help your child develop a moral identity:
- Praise your child for being a helpful person or caring person rather than for doing the helpful/caring action. Instead of saying “Great job helping your sister” you can say “Great job helping your sister you are such a helpful person.” The child will begin to see themselves as a helpful person rather than just seeing the action as helpful.
When your child says or does something that is insensitive when possible give them the chance for a do-over rather than simply punishing them. Here are some strategies:
- Call attention to the behavior that is unkind. Ask the child how they would feel if they were in the other person’s shoes. For example “How would you feel if your friend called you a mean name?” Then ask how they think the other person feels. Help them to take the other person’s perspective. Next repair the hurt. This can look like apologizing, returning what was taken, etc. depending on the situation.
- Remember to express disappointment for the unkind behavior but make sure to praise the child for making amends. For example “I am disappointed that you called your friend a mean name.” and “Awesome job apologizing!”
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