Teaching Empathy to Kids

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It appears that we are living in a world torn asunder by estrangement, and the irony of this does not escape anyone. In our microcosms of social media profiles and relationships, altruism is virtually non-existent and the gaps between individuals have grown into insurmountable chasms. How do you grow a child in the environment that values egotism above all else? As it turns out, teaching kids empathy may just be the greatest challenge of modern times.

The 101 of empathy for children

As a notion, empathy is a two-way street. It is the ability to identify with the feelings of others, and while this is an admirable trait by itself, true empathy also includes appropriate response to a specific feeling. Otherwise, you are not exactly helpful to that individual. This emotional reciprocity is the fundamental building block of relationships, and devoid of these basic skills, the person will endure insurmountable hardships in life. So, when do kids develop empathy, and what can you do to help?

Now, it is perfectly understandable if you think that empathy is too broad a concept for children to grasp all at once. After all, human beings tend to grow and develop for as long as they live so you cannot expect that a child becomes an expert at something that countless grownups hardly comprehend in full. That being said, toddlers begin to show the first signs of empathy once they reach the age of 2. They will clearly show consideration for someone who feels pain and even try to comfort them.

By the age of 4, they will be within the capacity to fully verbalize their empathetic feelings towards others. If you notice that they are not particularly adept that this or, even worse, that they are not properly socialized before they reach the age of 4, you should really make an extra effort to encourage their empathetic feelings, interact with other peers and visit a professional.

You need to be a model

‘Put words to your emotions’ should be the mantra of your relationship with your children, and you can do this quite easily by observing and questioning. As soon as they learn to speak, your kids will turn into a fountain of unfiltered expressions. The key is to ‘nudge’ them in the right direction by posing the right sequence of questions based on their reactions on the world around them. According to the feedback you get from your child, you then need to be mindful of what you learned and serve as a model as soon as the opportunity arises. In other words, if you want to teach empathy, you need to become the embodiment of it.

For example, if your child falls and gets hurt, their initial reactions will probably be eruptions of intense negative emotions – typically screaming and throwing tantrums. You should try to calm them down by sharing that you have felt that way too in a similar situation. In addition, when you yourself get hurt in front of your child – and the chances of this happening in a toy-laden environment is pretty high – you need to show your hurt so that your child can reciprocate empathy, but it would be doubly smart if you encouraged better behavior by expressing how you felt physically right then through words rather than screaming.

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Golden activities that teach

There are several good practical activities that teach empathy, but nothing quite beats the complex interplay between peers. Complex games that children devise and enact among themselves are an invaluable teaching tool, so you should encourage your child to play with friends as much as possible.  The number of toys in kids’ room should be kept just plentiful enough so that they do not get lost in alone-time. Apart from that, you can take your child on field trips to family-friendly farms where they can pet animals and interact with them. Reading and watching fiction together will give you the opportunity to teach your child about more elaborate aspects of empathy. For example, you can teach them about the feelings and the development of particular characters as the storyline unfolds. The question of why characters do something in a fictional environment is a fertile ground for teaching empathy to kids.

Discuss feelings after conflicts

While you may be inclined to introduce your kids to activities that teach empathy, the practical opportunities for this actually arise all the time. It is only a matter of time before your child makes a social blunder, ends up in a fight with siblings or other kids, you name it! Everything that leads to a conflict between you and your child is an opportunity to teach them empathy. After the heads cool off, you should initiate a conversation about your feelings.

You can guide your child through a conversation to a root cause of what made them do something that led to conflict. It can be the enlightening experience for the youngster in ways that you cannot begin to imagine and end up teaching them the fundamentals of self-reflection. The goal is to help them realize that there is always an alternative, more productive way to express their feelings or apply their skills. Furthermore, it will teach your child to articulate their actions and reactions properly. Knowing how to express your feelings clearly and in a relatable way is just as important for soliciting empathy as it is for giving it. Remember – it is a two-way street.

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Focus on ‘how’ instead of ‘what’

Conflicts are indescribable beasts for children. While they can grasp cause and effect whilst staying focused on how they feel about it, they can hardly grasp the way the other side feels about the conflict. As a matter of fact, they will not care. And who can blame them when so many adults don’t care about the feelings of the other parties in conflict either?

The thing is, if you explain to your child what made you angry at them, it may actually blow their mind if you focused on how what they did made you feel instead of what they did. The point is not to use your own feelings as an argument against them, of course, but to describe in the most relatable and easily understandable terms how their faux pas made you feel vulnerable. This is a crucial building block in teaching your kids empathy.

Sympathy is a trap on the road to empathy

Once your child learns how to verbalize emotions properly, you have pretty much secured a milestone in their development. They will become adept at relating to others and offering a comprehensible understanding of what they are going through. Feeling understood leads to understanding others, and this is an incredibly empowering thing. However, you should be watchful about a factor of sympathy on this road to understanding.

Sympathy and empathy are not the same notions, though the former is an integral part of the latter. Sympathy is a one-way street and an ugly one at that. It is simply about feeling sorry for someone. It is a dangerous red flag for a parent that they may get into a ‘protection’ mode when it is not warranted and fix the problem for a child, thus relinquishing them of their agency. This is an enabling behavior that can arouse a sense of entitlement in the child. You will give them an easy way out, which ends up teaching all kids to play the victim. Thus, it is the antithesis to teaching empathy and an incredibly dangerous trap. Whenever you feel a compulsion to ‘shield’ your child, remember that you cannot protect them from negative emotions.

No matter what your approach turns out to be, remember that teaching kids empathy has to be an organic process. Do not enforce anything too elaborate and avoid the trappings of planned out lessons and activities that are too much on the nose. While your guide is necessary, you need to allow your child to intuit when learning empathy, since this admirable trait needs to become the intrinsic part of their character and, therefore, engagement with people.

Author: Mary Lynn Holden
Author: Mary Lynn Holden

Proud mom and stepmom to an adorable bunch of kids aged 7 and up. Deeply appreciates three things in life: the help of older siblings in the house, texts on parenting, and strong coffee. Shares her stories and experiences in order to help others navigate the unpredictable waters of parenting.

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