Teaching Empathy to Kids

The ability to understand the feelings of others is an important skill for healthy, prosperous relationships and social connections. Research has found that parents who know how to foster empathy in their children weren’t born with this knowledge – they learned and applied it. And you can learn teaching empathy to kids too!

It’s tricky – but not impossible – as a parent, teacher, or therapist to teach children about empathy; however all work will pay off when teaching them such skills early on in life helps create healthier friendships later on down the road.

Teaching Empathy to Kids – When and How?

By teaching empathy to kids we teach children to care about other people and put themselves in somebody else’s shoes. We teach them that it is good to take another person’s feelings into account and treat people fairly.

Empathy can be observed as early as the age of 2 or 3 months, when babies start crying if they hear others cry. 

Babies start imitating facial expressions at 4 months and by 8 – 9 months they can actually feel what another person feels.

Naturally, teaching empathy to children is not the easiest thing in the world. The main reason for this is that we ourselves do not always succeed in teaching it to them. This is a rather difficult task, because we ourselves are sometimes not aware of our own feelings or so overwhelmed by them that teaching empathy to children seems close to impossible.

When is the right time to start teaching our kids empathy? How should we do it? Is the occasional lecture about the importance of the skill enough? Are there some creative ways to do it? Will your child end up overwhelmed by empathy?

Parents who practice conscious parenting deal with these and many other questions on a daily basis. Fortunately, even though it is a learned behavior, your child is born with the capacity for empathy. You just have to recognize it and encourage the attitude that cultivates this capacity.

Any parent or teacher who is capable of being kind and shows compassion already provides their children with a good foundation of empathy.

6 Ways to Help with Teaching Empathy to Kids

In general, teaching empathy to kids is letting them know that it is OK to be who they are, teaching them not to judge themselves or others – teaching them acceptance of self and others (differences). This in turn teaches self acceptance and tolerance for other people as well.

Here are 6 ways to teach children the art of compassion and empathy:

Teach about emotions.

Emotional intelligence, the ability to recognize, differ, and name various emotions correctly is the key to future empathy.

A child cannot empathize with feelings they can’t explain. By pointing out and naming emotions you assume your child is feeling, and the ones you’re feeling as well, you will stimulate the development of emotional intelligence.

This comprehensive set of Emotional Regulation Worksheets includes 4 different My Emotions Journals to help boys and girls identify and manage emotions and behaviors.

Model and interpret a variety of feelings.

It is important for children to learn how to interpret and model a variety of feelings. In this way they will learn that these emotions are acceptable and can be expressed appropriately in different situations.

Use everyday situations of observing distress (in real life, books, or on TV) and talk with your child about how the main character of the story could be feeling. Teach them to take a pause and think about other people’s emotions before taking any action.

Created by a Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant, this Sort and Match Emotions and Self Regulation Strategies Activity is a great addition any self regulation/behavior/social emotional learning curriculum.

Inspire curiosity for similarities.

One of the best ways to stimulate children’s brains is by encouraging them to look for similarities. Children are especially interested in the world around them and how things happen, which should be encouraged.

Kids feel greater empathy for familiar individuals and people who are more similar to them. Make your children aware of characteristics or experiences that they have in common with others. Allow them to meet people from different backgrounds so they can hear their stories and identify with them. This helps with social skills and relationship building!

Emotions Packet

Read stories and organize role-plays.

Empathy is more than just “emotion sharing.” It means taking another person’s perspective as well and trying to walk a mile in their shoes. Fictional stories and real-life narratives offer excellent opportunities for teaching empathy.

Reading can be a creative, less confrontational way to teach empathy. Reading stories together is also a great way to bond with your child. Discuss the story you are reading with your child and focus on the hero’s emotions.

Simulate common difficulties and life challenges with your children through role playing. This way they can perceive how they feel playing the role which will help them understand other people better.

Role playing a great way for teaching empathy to kids because they can help students develop an understanding of other people’s feelings, thoughts, beliefs, and experiences.

Practice recognizing facial expressions.

Being empathic is hard if you can’t read someone’s face. Toddlers often misinterpret facial expressions. You can practice by showing them pictures of people expressing different emotions and help them name each one of them correctly.

Created by a Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant, Identifying Emotions for Kids PDF, can be used with any self-regulation curriculum.

Teaching Empathy to Kids – After a conflict, share emotions.

Conflicts happen in every family. Maybe you got angry with your child for something they did, or perhaps they got in a fight with their sibling.

Once you’ve calmed down after the conflict, talk to your child about everyone’s emotions. This will enhance their empathy and also help them express their feelings more adaptively.

For example, if a child does something that you do not like, take action (this can be anything from telling them about your feelings to sending the kid to his/her room). Then, once the child is calmer and you are calmer too (if teaching empathy is teaching acceptance of self), talk about why the unacceptable behavior was inappropriate and what they can do differently the next time.

Created by a Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant, this Self Regulation Triggers and Calming Tools Resource is ready to go to help your students succeed.

“Empathy is seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another and feeling with the heart of another.”

– Alfred Adler

The moment you start teaching empathy to kids, you can be sure that you’re on the right path. Remember, each time you demonstrate empathy on your own, you are one step closer to having an emotionally well-developed child.

You can learn teaching empathy to kids. The ability to understand the feelings of others is an important skill for healthy relationships and social connections.