5 Tips for Teaching Empathy

Opportunities to practice empathy are everywhere.


Opportunities to practice empathy can be found in nature, in books, during TV shows, at the park, and in the home.


Empathy is the ability to understand and experience the feelings of others, and to respond in helpful ways.


Some children seem to develop empathy more naturally than others, but all children need to be taught this critical skill.


Children who are empathic will be better able to cope with conflict and difficult social situations.


Children who are empathic will be less likely to engage in bullying behavior, and more likely to jump in and help a friend or peer who is being bullied.


Children who are empathic are more likely to grow into well-adjusted adults with adaptive coping skills.


It’s never too early, or late, to start teaching empathy to your children.  Why not start today?


5 tips for building empathy in your child:


1.    Model:  The best way to teach empathy is to model empathy.  Pick your child up when he falls, label his feelings and let him know that you’ve felt that way too, and listen to your children.  Instead of walking away from that temper tantrum, stay calm and talk your child through it.  When children see you respond to difficult situations with empathy, they will internalize those behaviors and learn to do the same.

2.    Meet their Emotional Needs:  Kids are more likely to develop empathy when their emotional needs are being met at home.  Yes, parenting can be trying at times, and kids have emotions that shift by the hour.  But they need to feel heard and helped when things are hard.  When children have secure attachments with their parents, they are more likely to show empathy toward others.  Give them the gift of security.

3.    Teach Feelings Identification:  You teach them how to get dressed, you teach them how to put on their shoes, and you teach them how to brush their teeth.  But have you taught them how to identify their feelings?  Label their feelings for them (positive and negative) so that they can connect feelings words with emotional reactions.  It’s nearly impossible to understand how another person feels if you can’t even understand how you feel.  Try a few games.  Mirror, Mirror:  Make feelings faces in the mirror with your child and try to guess what each face depicts.  Talk about times that you’ve felt that way.  Did you know that you actually experience emotions just by play-acting them?  It’s true.  Feelings Charades:  A great game for family game night!  Take turns acting out and guessing various feelings.  Use books and TV to your advantage.  Observing Feelings:  Don’t just read through a book quickly or sit quietly through an episode of Franklin…point out the facial and other non-verbal cues and try to identify the feelings.  You will be reading the books and taking TV breaks anyway, why not make them a learning experience?

4.    Teach Responsibility:  Kids who have responsibilities tend to be more empathic and caring.  Give your child a specific job, allow your child to care for a small pet, and get involved in family community service projects.  When children are taught to be responsible, they learn to think about others.

5.    Teach Problem-Solving Skills:  It’s tempting to solve every problem for our little ones.  We usually have a solution, after all.  But if we solve every problem, we rob them of the opportunity to learn a critical life skill.  Teach your children to Stop-Think-Act.  Stop:  Assess the situation and determine the problem.  Think:  Consider possible solutions.  Will sharing a toy make my friend feel better?  Act:  Choose the best option and put it into action.  When children know how to problem solve, they are more likely to jump in and help a friend or sibling.


Opportunities to teach empathy are everywhere.  Don’t let another one slip away…


How do you teach empathy?

About Katie

Katie Hurley is a Child, Adolescent, and Family Psychotherapist and Parenting Expert in Los Angeles, CA. She works in private practice in the South Bay area of Los Angeles, writes for PBS Parents, Washington Post Parents, and the Huffington Post. She is the author of "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World" (Tarcher/Penguin, 2015) and "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" (Penguin Random House, 2018)