Empathy is the ability to genuinely understand and care about how other people feel. In order to develop healthy relationships, children need empathy. Empathy serves as a moral compass and also the foundation of emotional and social growth. All kids, although capable of empathy even from infancy, are not born with the skill. However, empathy for children can be taught and practised through play, conversational games and verbal expressions.
If you want to know how to teach a child empathy, focus on guiding them as they progress through different stages in life. Also, work on helping them practice empathy using age-appropriate lessons, which includes familiarizing them with words tied to feelings. If you have kids who are yet to master the empathy game, now is the right time to teach them. Let’s dive in.
How to teach a child empathy
Empathy for children is more stage-specific than age-specific. This means they may be older, but still be at the beginning stages of understanding empathy. As a result, it’s best not to rush them, rather continuously serve as a role model for empathy and encourage it in them till it becomes a part of their behaviour.
#1. Teach them about emotions by describing how others are feeling
When learning how to teach a child empathy, you must begin with the basics. Since empathy has to do with understanding how other people feel, then children must first learn to be aware of their feelings and the feelings of others.
- Talk about expressions: You can gather images that depict different emotional scenes and ask the kids how they think a person in that scene is feeling. Talk about which of the expressions means a person is sad, happy or mad. Also, try using picture books to help them practice how to read non-verbal expressions. Remember to allow them to express their thoughts on each image before correcting or affirming. You can also ask them to demonstrate different emotions if they wish to.
- Acknowledge your child’s actions with your words: It’s a good idea to verbally express yourself in reaction to your child’s actions. Immediately affirm positive behaviour or gently reprimand negative behaviour. For example, if your child takes another child’s toy and he/she starts crying, turn to your child and say something like, “You just made Cynthia very sad by taking her toy. Returning it should make her happy. Do you want to try it?” In the same vein, if your child does something good to another person, affirm their positive behaviour by saying something like, “Wow, that’s very kind of you. I bet you just made John very happy.”
#2. Ask open-ended questions
Empathy for children can be encouraged by asking them open-ended questions about their feelings or how others are feeling.
- Ask questions that help them brainstorm for ways to show kindness: For example, by asking “How can we help (***name of child***) feel better about (***something that happened to him/her***)?”, children will naturally start thinking of meaningful ways to respond through acts of kindness.
- Start a dialogue with a child who needs emotional support: Ask a child who is distressed what would make him/her feel better. Also if a child is scolded by another adult or offended by a peer, you can ask him/her what that feels like. Ensure to have other kids listen in, so they can be more aware of how their actions affect others.
#3. Guide their play to encourage empathy
Young children tend to learn better through active exploration, and play is a critical way to practice social skills while developing empathy and compassion. When kids act out their feelings or pretend to be a character, they are learning how to put themselves in someone else’s shoes.
- Introduce them to team player games: Understanding winning or losing and learning to interact with other kids during playtime can help children learn how to consider other people’s perspectives. For older kids, board games help them imagine what the other player is thinking about to enable them to make the next move. It can also help them take into account their teammate’s opinions.
- Conversational games: Whenever you and your children go out, try drawing their attention to people around them. For example, if you see a woman begging with her kids, talk with them about how the woman’s kids might be feeling having to stand under the sun for long hours or the feeling of not having enough to eat.
#4. Meet their emotional needs
In order to meet your children’s emotional needs, you first need to validate how they feel by listening to them before trying to fix or make the situation better. When you meet your child’s emotional needs they learn to mirror your actions and in turn meet the emotional needs of others.
- Acknowledge how they feel before offering any advice or solution: If your son or daughter walks up to you to say that someone scolded him/her, rather than immediately consoling him/her, try saying something like, “It sounds like you’re upset. Tell me what happened.” You can also follow up by asking, “How do you feel about that?” That way you give your child enough room to express himself/herself.
- Listen to them: As a parent, you might often feel like your children are “just kids” so you might unconsciously disregard the things they tell you. You might also think they are too naive or don’t know much, but it pays to listen to them and allow them to share their thoughts. Be there when they need your presence and with time, they’ll imbibe that habit and start being there for others.
#5. Model empathetic behaviour repeatedly
A major aspect of empathy for children is observation. Most children, especially those in elementary or preschool, learn how to read feelings by observing people’s actions, facial expressions and gestures. This means they need to see empathy modelled by you and their perception will largely be based on how you relate with them and others when they’re around.
- Show interest in things that matter to them
Trying to keep up with the things that your children like doing and regularly asking about those things will show them that you care. You could also offer to participate in whatever activity they engage in.
- Correct them lovingly: How you correct your children when they do something wrong goes a long way. For example, if your 4-year-old points at a visitor and audibly says, “fat woman!” your impulsive reaction might be to scold the child in front of everyone. It’s not advisable to do that. Instead, calmly explain to the child why such a statement might hurt the visitor’s feelings and why they shouldn’t repeat it.
- Comfort others in their presence: The tricky part about the first point we made on how to teach a child empathy is that while children might start to understand how people feel in different situations, they might not know how to react to those feelings. So as a significant adult in their life, you should adopt verbal and non-verbal means of consoling others. Do it often especially when the children are present. Use comforting words and give a hug where necessary. The more you demonstrate, the faster they learn.
#6. Create opportunities for them to practice empathy
There are several activities that children can use to practice and develop their empathy. Some include writing out sentences that acknowledge how much their friends mean to them, others require showing kindness to people who might not be able to return the gesture.
- Introduce them to random acts of kindness: Encourage kids to show kindness especially when it’s least expected. If you teach a class, you can dedicate a basket as the “basket of compliments.” Ask students to write out compliments to a classmate occasionally, tag their name and drop it in the basket. You can also encourage them to write thank-you notes to classmates who have been nice to them.
- Hold occasional roundtable conversations: Get the children in your care to sit in a circle at a particular time and day every week to share how they feel in general or about a certain topic. You can choose a “talking stick” which will be passed around to indicate whose turn it is to speak. This will help develop their listening skills while fostering empathy.
- Allow them to participate in a charity project: At Greensprings School, we hold an annual charity project for the students called “Christmas in a Box.” For this project, students are required to select items from their wardrobes that they don’t need or use any more. They are then guided by their parents to pack those items neatly in a box and wrap it up. Afterwards, the boxes are shared to children in orphanage homes who might not have the privilege of receiving gifts for Christmas.
Empathy is one of the most important traits a child needs to develop. Children who are empathetic are less likely to become bullies or exhibit uncaring behaviour towards others. Empathy also helps shape children into kind, compassionate and well-behaved adults. However, empathy for children requires frequent practice, guidance and constant examples shown by you.