Teaching Empathy to Children

By Annye Rothenberg, Ph.D.


Many parents are noticing that their children don’t seem very empathetic. Parents and teachers are concerned that too many children don’t a ppear to notice others’ feelings or care if others are upset.

Empathy is the cornerstone for meaningful, close, and satisfying connections between people – both children and adults. We want our children to care about others. We want them to be able to look at things from the other’s perspective – not just from their own. Seeing only your own perspective makes you more self-centered and selfish and less likely to take responsibility for your actions. People who understand how their actions affect others are likely to choose more appropriate behavior, show better judgment, and repair rifts in their relationships with others.

Some children tend to be more naturally empathetic and some – even in the same family – seem to lack the trait. The jury is still out on how much is genetic versus environmental, but it is clear that children can become more empath etic with help from the adults in their lives. Parents are the first and foremost teachers.

Before we look at strategies for teaching empathy, let’s clear up one area of confusion about the “sensitive child. There are two very different types of sensitivity. There is the empathetic person who is sensitive to others and reads people’s feelings and moods easily. And there is the sensitive person whose feelings are often hurt by the smallest of things – a joke, a tone of voice, etc. It’s important to know that being self-sensitive doesn’t mean a person is empathetic – the opposite may be true. Thin-skinned people are overly sensitive to comments., etc., which would roll right off most people’s backs.  Overly or self-sensitive children and adults often over-react to the interpersonal environment and take things too personally, suffering unnecessary emotional pain. They tend to use s o much energy in that way that they have little left to notice other people’s distress and reach out to them.   Self-sensitive people often need help learning not to be so affected by others before they can be empathetic. There are ways that people can become less thin-skinned, but that’s a topic for another article.

Now, let’s look at strategies for teaching empathy to children:

First, make sure you don’t overserve your child.
Don’t do things for him that kids his age can do for himself, such as putting away his toys or picking up his dropped pencil. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do occasional kindnesses, but if you fall into a pattern of acting as your child’s servant, he learns that only he and no one else matters.

Second, put yourself in the picture. When he doe s or says something unkind or disrespectful to you, tell him how you feel when anyone does that to you. It’s more effective to emphasize that you would be annoyed or hurt by that behavior from anyone, not just him, so he understands that it’s not about him personally. Then explain that he’ll need to do something very kind to make it up to you. If your child can ignore you, be rude to you, or treat you like a servant, his empathy for anyone but himself will be lacking.

Third, create a family culture in which parents talk about incidents from their day (though not situations serious enough to worry or upset a child) and how they made them feel – the enjoyable and the difficult emotions. Show that you’re not perfect and encourage the family to be supportive and kind. This helps children talk more openly about themselves without fear of being judged or advised.

Fourth, as you talk about incidents in your day, try to give the views of the other participants as well as your own. Discuss why the people involved might have done what they did. For example, you might describe saying something angry to your friend because she was late meeting you for lunch, and then learning that her car wouldn’t start. Too many children are told only their parents’ side, which can sound like it’s always the other person’s fault. Try discussing why people acted the way they did. If someone was unfair or unkind, help your children consider that the others might have been preoccupied or upset about something.  Children develop more empathy if parents and other family members are encouraged to look at others’ motivations, feelings, and behavior. Encourage the children to talk about what else a person could do in a difficult interaction to make it go better. Family members might enjoy some role-playing.

Fifth, when your child gets to the point where he shares the things he did in his day that weren’t kind enough to others, think about how you’re trying to teach him empathy. The most common method of teaching empathy — asking: “How would you feel if someone said that to you?” – is often ineffective because most children either have developed an automatic answer like “bad” or “unhappy,” or use a more teasing and defiant answer such as, “I’d like it.” When discussing their behavior, it’s more effective to ask thought-provoking questions, such as: “What do you think that person is thinking about you now?” or “What will the boy you were teasing be telling his parents?” or “Now what are your thoughts about what happened?” Then you can ask, “What ideas do you have about what you could have done differe ntly?”

Finally, as your child makes efforts to work on his empathy, of course, you’ll want to praise him. And as with any skills we teach our children, parents often improve as well – that’s another of the many joys and benefits of raising children.

About the Author:
Annye Rothenberg, Ph.D.,
author, has been a child/parent psychologist and a specialist in childrearing and development of young children for more than 25 years. Her parenting psychology practice is in Redwood City, California. She is also on the adjunct faculty in pediatrics at Stanford University School of Medicine. Dr. Rothenberg was the founder/director of the Child Rearing parenting program in Palo Alto, California, and is the author of the award-winning books Mommy and Daddy are Always Supposed to Say Yes … Aren’t They? and Why Do I Have To? and the just released I Like To Eat Treats. These are all-in-one books with a story for young children and a manual for parents. For more information about her books and to read her articles, visit www.PerfectingParentingPress.com. To order from amazon.com: http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_ss?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=b.annye+rothenberg&x=8&y=20

Also by Annye Rothenberg: Six Tools for Getting Through to Your Preschooler

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