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Building Empathy in Children

Help build the skills of empathy early and often.

Deborah on Hudsoncrafted / Pixabay
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Source: Deborah on Hudsoncrafted / Pixabay

Every parent wants an empathetic child. A child who knows how to understand someone else’s feelings and can have relationships with others that are healthy and nurturing.

Depending on your child’s age you may have concerns: Is this vital skill developing, delayed or just not there at all?

There is evidence of babies displaying empathy. In one study, researchers in Israel found that babies as early as 6 months were empathetic toward bullied victims.

Yet even with this good news, kids need to be nurtured; empathic skills can be developed, practiced, and honed.

How to Teach Empathy

Start young. The foundation for empathy is real human connection, even if you think your toddler is too young to begin learning this skill. They are not. You can begin the groundwork by simply talking to them. Narrate your day. Narrate your thoughts when playing or spending time with your child. This can be as simple as “Mom is really excited about this food!” or “Dad didn’t really like stubbing his toe.”

Even if your child is not verbal yet, you are teaching them cues to what is going on around them. When children get older they can begin using these cues to curate their own responses to others, and their own responses to their own emotions as well.

For Older Children

When your children are older and engaging in their own social circles, whether at school or with siblings you will have more opportunities to practice teaching empathy.

Ask your child how their day was and what their friends are going through. When they report back, as your child how you think their friend felt about that. If your child has a hard time coming up with an answer, give your own interpretation. If your child plays along, you can start to brainstorm ways in which they believe they could support their friends or peers.

Start with Their Own Emotions

One of the most valuable aspects of honing this skill is that children will get more in tune with their own internal lives. If a child is able to empathize with the feelings of others, they will also have the foundation for empathy for themselves. Children often times struggle to verbalize what they are feeling and thinking. This can lead to greater levels of anxiety and depression. However if we give children the vocabulary and permission to interact with these facets of the emotional lives of themselves and others, this will get easier.

Be an Example

Most importantly, be an example for your children. Talk about your feelings (in an emotionally appropriate way) with your children. Let them see that you are human and can struggle. But it is never okay to make your child your emotional dumping ground. Your peers, partner, or therapist should be in that role. Share with your child for their benefit, not yours.

Teaching this skill to children is challenging but worth it. No parent is perfect, but each effort is valuable.

References

Babies display empathy for victims as early as 6 months. July 2019. Ben-Gurion University of the Negev

Children Are Naturally Prone To Be Empathic And Moral. July 2008. University of Chicago

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