6 Easy Ways to Teach Your Child Empathy

A four-year-old girl walks into a classroom for the first time. She does not speak English, and she knows no one, except her father who lovingly drops her off. The children are playing and only one boy notices her by the door from the other side of the room. He gets up, walks towards her and reaches for her hand. He doesn’t say a word, but when he looks at her, she knows he understands exactly how she feels, and she feels safe.

Children who are empathetic are better able to deal with their emotions and those of others during conflict or even in everyday situations. This also allows them to “read” social cues, such as when a person wants to play and when they prefer to be left alone, or when it’s ok to give someone a hug. This will help your child make friends easier, have deeper and more meaningful relationships, and even have better grades at school.

Every child has the innate ability to understand another person’s circumstances, thoughts and feeling, which is described as empathy. As parents, all we need to do is cultivate it. Here are 6 tips to teach your child empathy:

Help Your Child Recognize Different Feelings

Help your young child recognize different basic emotions and begin identifying them with words. Start with basic feelings, like “angry”, “happy” or “sad” and evolve to more subtle ones like “proud” or “disappointed”. Once they recognize their own feelings, they are better able to recognize them in others. This is the first lesson in teaching empathy and emotional intelligence. You can draw how you feel, talk about it, express it with movement, but don’t forget the most important prop: a mirror. Show your child their facial expression for each emotion and explore it together.

As they grow older, use more complex vocabulary to help them understand how they feel: “It surprised you to see dad arrive so early today”; “You have a big test tomorrow, and now your stomach hurts, are you feeling nervous?”; “You have had a very long day, are you feeling drained?”.

To enhance this learning, make sure you share with your child how you are feeling as well, by using feeling words yourself. You can say, for example, “I am so thrilled to see you!” or “I am preoccupied” or “indecisive” or whatever you may be feeling. The more precise vocabulary you use, the more your child will begin to understand subtle nuances between emotions.

Be Aware of Others’ Feelings

As you go through the day, demonstrate empathetic behaviour towards other people. One way to do this is by observing other people’s state of mind. Invite your child to participate in this observation by including it as part of your daily conversations. For instance, “That baby is laughing, do you think she feels happy?” or “Look at the puppy in the car, it must be feeling lonely! I bet it can’t wait for its owner to come back from the store…” or “Your friend was very quiet today; I wonder if he is feeling sad about something…”. This will help your child recognize feelings in others, which is the first step towards helping someone feel better and empathizing with them.

Walk Your Talk

The best way to teach a child empathy is to be empathetic as parents. Respond to your newborn’s needs with empathy and kindness, don’t keep them crying or waiting and you will teach them that you love them, you care for them, and that they can count on you. As they grow older, listen to them and let them know they are loved no matter what, cared for and understood. They will learn that being there for someone provides comfort, and soon act the same towards you, and towards others.

Children model your behaviour. If you are kind and empathetic towards people you care about, they will learn to do the same. If you are kind and empathetic towards people you have never met before, they will also learn that from you. This is an invaluable learning experience for your child, and one they will most likely keep for the rest of their lives.

If your child sees you holding the door for strangers, giving up your seat for someone who needs it more, or being patient with a new teller at the bank, they will learn to do the same. This will teach your child not only to understand how others are feeling, but to know that they have the ability to make others feel better and to help just by the way they behave towards them.

Help Your Child Understand Others

Your child covers their ears when they hear another child cry very loudly. Their first reaction is to feel bothered by the child, or at least by the loud noise. You take the time to look and quietly comment to your child “That boy seems very upset, I see he is also holding his leg, he must have fallen and hurt himself. How can we help?”.

As your child gains more practice, choose situations that are progressively more subtle or complex, for example “I noticed that Lily had her head down and was walking slowly after school today, I wonder if she had a chance to play with anyone at recess? Do you know if she might be feeling left out?”. Also try to help your child understand why a person may be affected by something that does not seem so obvious to them “You sister is not upset with you, she is upset because she did not do very well on her test. She just needs a little time alone until it passes and then she will be able to think about it without getting emotional.”

Show Your Child How to Make Others Feel Good

It is incredibly rewarding to make someone else happy. Give your child ample opportunity to care for you, they can make you a tea, for instance, or save you a piece of their chocolate bar. For their siblings you could as “What do you think we could prepare for dinner that would make your brother feel special?”. For others try saying “It was really nice of you to hold the door for that man at the supermarket, especially because he looked so tired”. If you or your child has guests your child could offer them a drink of water when they arrive or hang their coats. Once your children receive an allowance, teach them to set aside some of that amount (it can be any amount they choose) to help someone else. They can choose to help someone in need, or raise funds for something they believe in, like saving endangered species. You can also ask them to help you carry some groceries to bring to the food bank or recycle bottles to help keep the environment clean.

One of our favourite games to play as a family is, after dinner, picking the names of each-other out of a bowl and being extra kind to the person we got without telling them, for as long as it takes that person to realize we were their secret benefactor. Another fun thing to do is choosing one family member at dinner time, when we are all together, and telling them (one at a time) one thing we like or admire about them. It teaches your children how to really look at someone’s good traits rather than always point out what they don’t like about them, and also to think a little more deeply about that person and what they mean to them. The next time you have dinner, someone else will have a turn, until all of you got showered with love!

Recognize and Praise When Your Child Is Being Kind

When you see your little one demonstrating empathy, concern or care for others, be quick to compliment them on their actions; “It was very nice of you to share your bucket at the park. How did you know this child wanted to play with it?”; “You made grandma very happy by giving her such a big hug. She misses you so much when she doesn’t see you!”; “It was very kind of you to share your seeds with the birds”.

Children who are empathetic feel much happier and more fulfilled. They also have a much higher level of understanding and acceptance for other cultures and embrace different people and experiences regardless of how different they are from their own. They have more respect for animals, insects, and the environment, and have the qualities needed to be a true leader, an example for others. You can enhance this by exposing your child to different cultures if you like traveling, or even different foods, different music, different books, where they learn to appreciate others’ ways of seeing the world, which in turn expands their own view.

The next lesson will be to ensure that they treat themselves with the same kindness and respect as they treat others. The same way you taught your child to discover their feelings first before being able to understand how others feel, teach them that unless they feel happy and their needs are met, they won’t have much to give. A lesson as parents we also should learn!

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