Empathy: The ability to step into someone else’s shoes and accurately understand their perspective and emotions. Without a doubt, the ability to empathize is something we all want for our children! But how can you teach your child empathy from an early age?
Let’s discuss how to implement 11 essential steps to build a strong foundation from which empathy can grow in young children.
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Why it’s important to know how to teach your child empathy
I truly believe that empathy lies inside almost all humans. When it comes to kids, it’s no secret that some have an easier time expressing it than others. It’s normal for kids to fall into the “blame game” after their actions inflict some type of harm. If “She started it first!” and “It’s not my fault!”, sound familiar, you’re not alone!
The key is knowing how to take on an effective, evidence-based approach to tap into that empathy.
How not to teach your child empathy
As parents, sometimes we get caught up in trying to immediately “fix” our children’s outside behavior (e.g., “You need to apologize to your sister right now… or no video games for a week!”). Unfortunately, forced apologies are ineffective and don’t spark an empathetic thought process. Furthermore, arbitrary consequences (i.e., punishment unrelated to the undesired behavior) do not prevent the behavior from occurring again.
If you’re battling the blame game right now at home, particularly with elementary-aged children, I encourage you to check out one of my top-reads, My Child Shows No Remorse! How to Spark Empathy.
A proactive, educational approach
Sure, we’ll always need to know how to react and respond to the various curve-balls our kids throw at us. But when it comes to how to teach your child empathy through positive parenting, it’s most effective to focus on a proactive, educational approach.
In other words, we don’t necessarily have to wait for a problem to arise to create a teachable moment. We’ll discuss 11 tips that can easily be implemented into your family’s day-to-day routine.
Why empathy in kids is important according to science
The benefits of empathy go beyond social/emotional development and can even positively impact cognitive and academic outcomes for children. Research shows that children with an ability to empathize are:
- More likely to exhibit prosocial behavior.
- Better equipped to work collaboratively and cooperatively on teams.
- Better able to adapt to change and exhibit flexibility.
- More likely to exhibit open-mindedness.
- At an increased likelihood for academic success.
- More likely to have advanced critical thinking and reading comprehension skills.
See specific studies cited in Developing Empathy in Children and Youth
When should my child begin to show empathy?
According to Dr. Lawrence Kutner, a clinical psychologist, and Harvard professor, there are “precursors” to empathy starting from birth! Have you ever noticed that one crying baby can trigger another infant to follow suit?
Of course, it’s not until toddlerhood that we begin to see behaviors that more closely resemble “true empathy”. Children as young as two may begin to independently respond to crying loved ones with a hug or other kind gesture.
By age four, children can begin to make connections between their emotions and the emotions of others. Dr. Lawrence notes that the best time to start modeling empathy is during infancy; however, preschool is an ideal time to really begin exploring how others think and feel.
Source: How Children Develop Empathy
11 tips on how to teach your child empathy
Based on child development research as well as my professional experience working as an elementary school counselor, let’s delve into the 11 key tips for how to teach your child empathy from an early age.
#1: Provide your child with a “feelings vocabulary”
A “feelings vocabulary” is without a doubt a prerequisite for emotional self-awareness and empathy in children. The great news is this step can be implemented before your child is even verbal!
Teach feeling words through daily conversation
Beginning in infancy, you can simply narrate the various feelings that come up for your child throughout the day. It may feel silly, but when your baby cries, you can say aloud, “You’re crying! It’s okay to feel sad. You might be sad because you need a diaper change. Let’s check!”
Not only are you validating their emotions with this type of acknowledgment, you are giving them the future lingo needed to express their feelings.
As your child begins to communicate, you can suggest feeling words for them to use. “I noticed you just stomped away. Are feeling mad right now? I’m here to listen if you can use your words to tell me what happened.”
Teach feeling words through books
Children’s books are a phenomenal way to expand on feelings words in your home. Again, you can begin reading to your child as soon as they are born! Once a child begins talking, it can be shocking for parents to find out how much they absorbed in the first 1-2 years of life.
Below are some of my top picks for feelings books on Amazon:
#2: Model “I feel” statements
The best way to teach a young child how to express their feelings through words (rather than tantrums or physical methods), is to show them how.
Truthfully, this can feel pretty uncomfortable for some parents at first. Many of us did not grow up in environments where an expression of negative emotions was accepted. It just wasn’t the norm for past generations of parents! The good news is that with a little practice, it gets so much easier.
You can show your child that negative feelings do not have to be followed by negative choices. Rather, show them how calmly using words to express yourself can lead to a quicker and more favorable solution.
The “I feel” script
A super simple script I like to model and teach young children is as followed:
“I feel ________ when _______. I would like _______.”
Ex: “I feel frustrated when you leave your shoes out after we return home. I would like for you to put them in the closet so no one trips and gets hurt.”
#3: Encourage your child to identify their feelings
Once your child has learned the different names for feelings and understands that those feelings can be expressed through words, the real magic can begin! This can start as early as toddlerhood, although we certainly cannot and should not expect perfection. Toddlers are always going to have a tough time with big emotions here and there, it’s developmentally normal.
I have to admit there’s no greater feeling than when my two-year-old declares, “[his name] mad!!”. Of course, he usually requires further prompting to articulate exactly what’s wrong. I’ll fully admit it’s a little heartbreaking when he says “sad!” (often when I’m getting ready in the morning or cooking dinner and he would like more attention). Although, I’d rather put my personal feelings aside and take comfort in him not bottling up these emotions.
Reinforce their healthy expression with a listening ear
When your child is successful in articulating their emotions, immediately make listening to them a priority whenever possible. Reinforce that this is the most successful way to receive your (or anyone else’s) attention when they are angry, upset, or frustrated.
#4: Validate your child’s feelings
I cannot express enough how vital it is to validate children’s feelings, both positive and negative, regardless of the choices that they may make.
I remember when I was studying counseling in my master’s program, I read how invalidating feelings was one of the most damaging dynamics that can occur in adult relationships. This always stuck with me as a school counselor. If we hold this pivotal need as adults, just imagine how essential it is for emotionally vulnerable little ones!
Step-by-step guide to validating feelings
I invite you to check out one of Such a Little While’s most popular articles, How to Validate Children’s Feelings in 10 Crucial Ways, for a more comprehensive overview. Here is a quick run-down on the most important steps:
- Take an “Empathic Pause”: The trials and tribulations of young children raised in supportive homes will almost always seem silly and trivial! But not to them. We must put ourselves in their shoes and practice the same empathy we are trying to teach.
- Provide Time & Space to Process Emotions: Give your child a chance to “feel their feelings” before rushing in to talk about it.
- Hear Them Out: Listen to your child before taking your turn to talk.
- Separate Their Feelings From Yours: “We” are not upset right now. “[Your child’s name]” is upset right now! Try not to allow your feelings of embarrassment or frustration to take over.
- Acknowledge & Affirm: Echo back the feeling and context in which your child’s feelings occurred. “I’m hearing that you’re sad right now because we can’t go to the pool today. Is that correct?”
- Match Their Tone: A secret customer service tool! You don’t need to scream at the top of your lungs, but your tone should be of similar quality to your child’s. Talking in a whisper usually only fuels an angry child!
A common misconception on validating negative feelings
I want to note that with positive parenting, you do not have to agree with or condone any poor choices made by your child! You can say something like, “It’s okay to be angry, but it’s not okay to hit.”
#5: Teach and reinforce healthy coping skills
As your child is learning to identify and communicate their negative emotions, you’ll also want to help them learn effective and healthy coping skills. Talking about their feelings with you is an excellent start! But many young children will need some help calming down first.
Sensory tools for early coping skills
Hands-on sensory tools work very well to provide children with a tactile emotional outlet and can return them to a place of calm. Here are the tools that were always staples in my elementary school counseling office!
#6: Teach your child to look for “clues” to identify feelings of others
When you are identifying feelings in yourself or others, make it a point to explain to your child how you came to the conclusion on that feeling. Here are some examples:
- Facial expressions: “I see your lip is quivering. Are you feeling sad right now?”
- Words/tone of voice: “I hear her voice getting louder. She may be feeling angry.”
- Body language: “I’m scratching my head because I’m so confused right now.”
#7: Routinely ask your child about the perspectives and feelings of others
“Repeated practice at taking another’s perspective is more effective than one-shot or infrequent efforts to do so. For many people, including the very young, the ability to imagine and gain insight into another person’s point of view does not come easily. Sustained practice at role-playing or perspective-taking is an effective means to increasing level of empathy.”Cotton (1992), see specific studies cited within
Start with calm and/or hypothetical situations
Your son takes your daughter’s toy without asking and she hits him in response. Sound familiar? You’re not alone!
While this is a common sibling situation, it’s not an ideal starting point for perspective-taking questions in young children! As you may have already discovered, emotions are high, the blame-game has begun, and kids are looking for a way to explain their way out of “trouble.”
Consider starting with real-life “calm” scenarios or hypothetical situations (e.g., characters in books) to begin exploring perspective-taking questions with your young child. Children will be much more likely to willingly participate and engage with an open mind.
Open-ended questions are the way to go here to avoid the minimal “yes/no” response we can sometimes get from children. Here are some ideas to get the conversation going:
- How would you feel in [another person’s] situation?
- How do you think they might be feeling right now? How do you know?
- Why do you think you and [another person] may feel the same way (or differently)?
- What would you think if [situation] happened to you?
- What do you think they might be thinking right now? How do you know?
- Why do you think you and [another person] may think the same way (or differently)?
- What would be most helpful if you were in [another person’s] situation?
- How do you think others should respond to [another person] and why?
- What might you do to help [another person]?
- What do you think needs to happen to make things right in this situation?
#8 Positively reinforce empathetic choices
You’ve provided your child with a vocabulary of feeling words, modeled and taught identification and expression of emotions, and have planted a seed with hypothetical perspective-taking. Now it’s time to give your child a little time to put some empathy into action!
Empathy in children can span anywhere from your toddler kissing your “boo-boo” to your elementary schooler standing up to a peer being bullied. No empathetic deed needs to go unnoticed! Reinforce the behaviors and skills you wish to see more of from your child.
When you “catch your child” showing empathy, pour on recognition for that choice. Tangible “rewards” aren’t necessary, but recognition is key. Empower them to feel proud. Tell your partner about their display of empathy in your child’s presence. Explore with them the potential impact their kindness has had on another person.
#9 Use restorative practices when your child causes harm or lacks remorse
Let’s return to our sibling squabble situation. Brother takes his sister’s toy. Sister hits her brother. We have a two-way exchange of harm and blame. I want to validate for you that it is much harder to elicit empathy from children in these situations, but it is possible!
I want to let you in on an amazing secret in the world of education: Restorative Practices. Restorative Practices is an effective, positive approach to restoring relationships and repairing harm with children. In my article, My Child Shows No Remorse! How to Spark Empathy, I do a deep dive into how to bring this effective, empathy-eliciting practice into the world of positive parenting. Here, I’ll give you the quick rundown on how to teach your child empathy through Restorative Questions.
It goes against all parenting intuition, but do not “force” your child to immediately apologize for their wrongdoing. This meaningless act is for grownups and does nothing to help kids heal or learn from mistakes.
Also, avoid asking “why” or closed-ended questions that can shut your child down or put them on the defense:
- “Why would you do something like this?”
- “Why didn’t you do ________ instead?”
- “Did you want your sister to get hurt?”
The International Institute for Restorative Practices provides an amazing empathy-sparking script of six questions to draw from when your child causes harm. To make things easier, I’ve put them on an easy-to-reference cheat sheet for you. Hang it on your fridge or save it to your phone for the next time your child causes harm. Leave a comment at the end of this article to let me know how it goes!
- “What happened?”
- “What were you thinking of at the time?”
- “What have you thought about since?”
- “Who has been affected by what you have done?”
- “In what way have they been affected?”
- “What do you think you need to do to make things right?”
#10: Celebrate diversity
Helping your child to embrace differences in a positive way can have a profound impact on their ability to see things from others’ perspectives. Parent ToolKit provides an excellent resource on how parents can encourage young children to embrace diversity from an early age. Here is a quick overview of their top five tips:
- Seek out a diverse book collection to read and discuss with your child. Find characters with differing races/ethnicities, religions, family structures, and cultural backgrounds. (See my top Amazon book selections below).
- Encourage self-reflection and open-mindedness when learning about others. Explore what makes your child special and unique. Provide opportunities for them to get to know others who share similarities and differences.
- Validate feelings of exclusion or injustice. Perhaps your child is feeling left out or has been treated unkindly. Validating their feelings in these moments can help them empathize with those who have been marginalized.
- Embrace their questions. Avoid a “hush-hush” attitude towards hot button topics surrounding diversity. Do your best to show your child you are comfortable talking through their questions at an age-appropriate level. If you are not sure of the answer, do a little research together!
- Empower your child as a change agent. Teach your child the power of their words. Reinforce that they can set an example and serve as a leader among family and friends when it comes to combating injustice.
Top Diversity Books for Kids
#11: Provide your child with helping opportunities
This one goes hand in hand with embracing diversity. Again, we can empower our children to not only hold empathy for others facing hardship but to act as change agents in their world.
Help your child find a passion
You can play off your child’s strengths and interests. If you have an outdoor enthusiast, you can help them facilitate a community cleanup event. Is your child a total people person? Consider a neighborhood lemonade stand and donate the profits to a charity of your child’s choosing. Animal lover? Find out what your local shelter needs most and how your child might be able to help.
How to find volunteer opportunities for young children
Volunteermatch.org is a wonderful resource to find volunteer opportunities in your area. Just type in your zip code and set the search filter to “great for kids”. You can even narrow your search by your child’s specific interests or your family’s unique skillsets.
Final thoughts on how to teach your child empathy
Now that you have 11 key tips on how to teach your child empathy, you may be feeling a bit overwhelmed on where to begin. I get it! It’s important to remember that it’s okay to start small and simply meet your child where they are at.
Depending on your child’s developmental stage, you may be spending lots of time working on building a feelings vocabulary, or perhaps your child is ready to begin diving into volunteer opportunities. Wherever you are today, is perfectly okay!
I encourage you not to think of this as a “to do” list, but rather a skill and value you embrace in your day to day life as a family. You are the expert on your child and are the very best person to explore how to teach them empathy. In other words, you got this!
When it comes to positive parenting, I believe we are truly better together. Parenthood is the hardest job in the world and is not meant to be experienced alone!
If you’re looking for a support system of like-minded parents who hold empathy as a core parenting value, I wholeheartedly welcome you into the Such a Little While circle of support. We’d love to keep learning and growing together! As a subscriber to my newsletter, you’ll receive additional free bonus resources to stay encouraged in your positive parenting journey.