Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


The Secret to Teaching a Child Empathy

Raise a child who cares about how their actions impact others.

The goal is to raise a child who is conscientious. A child who truly cares about the way his or her actions impact others is, generally, a child with solid character.

Usually this type of child feels immediate and deep remorse after a mistake and works hard to make it right. A deep streak of empathy usually runs through this sort of child.

But what about the kids who lack these capabilities? Helping them acquire the capacity for empathy is critical because it is key in maintaining close and healthy relationships.

There are about as many books about empathy as stars in the sky, so for the sake of time, parents need the secret. There is one essential way to help a child truly integrate empathy. It is for him or her to experience empathy from a parent. When a child experiences empathy, he or she gains the capacity to have empathy.

Empathy is honoring a person’s feeling state. Often, this is counterintuitive to parents who want to “fix” their child’s situation. Yet as odd as it sounds, honoring and resonating with a child’s feeling state is what helps them, not rescuing them from their problem. Empathy, itself, is healing. Fixing the child’s predicament, on the other hand, strips the child of their self-efficacy.

For example, my daughter, Molly, started to cry at bedtime a few months ago. I asked what was wrong and she told me that at recess, in front of everyone, her friend announced to the crowd that Molly was adopted, which meant that she had a mom who didn’t want her.

Although I was irate, I set that emotion aside, so I could be there for Molly. I held her close. Instead of telling her that the friend was a bully or that the friend had no right to say such things, I empathized. I gently said, “You are so hurt, so hurt. I’m here, honey. It hurts, I get it.” She snuggled close to me and I held her. I did not try to fix the problem by explaining that her friend’s perspective was wrong. I did not attempt to convince her of a different opinion. I just honored the pain.

After a few seconds, I empathized again, “It must have hurt so much to feel so alone and different. I’m so sorry, honey. I wish I would’ve been there.” Molly cried and hugged me tighter.

“I love you mom,” she said. I told her that I loved her too and that I adored her heart. We cuddled for a while longer and I asked her what I could do to help. She thought about it and asked me to talk to her friend’s mom about the situation. And I did.

At school, Molly did not retaliate. She avoided the friend but did not reciprocate the cruelty. She also continued to tell me when she was angry, sad, disappointed, worried, and frustrated, so I could help.

Telling a child not to feel the way they do does not help them. Feelings are the essence of who a person is. Saying things like, “don’t be mad” or “don’t be sad” or “you're too sensitive” compounds the hurt, anger, or sadness, because the child feels alone in it. Sensing when a child is angry or frustrated and saying “You are frustrated, I get it, I would be too,” allows them to feel understood, connected to the parent and less alone. Feeling understood empowers a child to carry on.

Sympathy or feeling sorry for a child may instill a sense of entitlement in the child. When a parent feels compelled to fix the problem for the child, the parent puts themselves in a position of power. They take control of the situation, which strips a child of their agency and teaches them to play the victim when things go wrong. Empathizing, on the other hand, heals the child because they no longer feel alone, and they feel close to the parent because the parent authentically understands.

Parents cannot save a child from feeling hurt, angry, disappointed, or sad. These are normal and common emotions. Yet when a parent is emotionally in tune with the child as he or she experiences these emotions, it allows the child to feel less alone. It also connects the child and parent, fostering closeness.

A child who consistently receives empathy gains the ability to regulate negative emotions in a healthy way. They also readily integrate the ability to have empathy for others.

More from Erin Leonard Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today