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You may have heard the saying, “Before you criticize or judge someone, walk a mile in their shoes.” This quote is all about empathy. Empathy is the ability to be aware of the feelings of others and imagine what it might be like to be in their position (or in their shoes).
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And like any skill, empathy can be taught and developed in children. Because cognitive abilities and life experiences develop over time, the most effective strategies to use depend on the child’s age.
Let’s look at some key strategies of teaching empathy to children, as well as some age-by-age ideas and activities.
4 General Strategies to Teach Empathy at Any Age
1. Model empathy.
Any time you want to teach a skill to a child, it’s important to model it yourself. This way, the child understands what empathy looks like, sounds like, and feels like. Plus, it’s easier to teach a skill that you’ve already mastered yourself.
Remember to model empathy even when you’re upset with or giving consequences to your child. This reinforces the idea that empathy can and should be used even when you’re feeling disappointed, hurt, or angry. The more children receive empathy, the more likely they are to offer it to others.
2. Discuss emotions.
Talk openly about emotions rather than dismissing or burying them. Let’s say your child is scared of the dark. Instead of saying, “There’s nothing to be afraid of,” explore the child’s feelings: “Are you scared of the dark? What scares you about the dark?”
If your child doesn’t like another child, don’t immediately say, “That’s wrong,” but ask why the child feels that way. This can lead to a discussion about the other child’s actions and why the child might be acting that way (e.g., They just moved to a new school and are feeling angry because they miss their old school and their friends).
Never punish a child for feeling sad or angry. Make it clear that all emotions are welcome, and learn to manage them in a healthy way through discussion and reflection.
3. Help out at home, in the community, or globally.
Helping others develop kindness and caring. It can also give children the opportunity to interact with people of diverse backgrounds, ages, and circumstances, making it easier to show empathy for all people.
Read through our list of activities that make a difference at home, in the community, and globally, then pick an activity or two and get started.
4. Praise empathetic behavior.
When your child shows empathy for others, praise the behavior. Focusing on and encouraging empathetic behavior encourages more of it in the future.
Make the praise specific: “You brought your sister a Band-Aid for her scraped knee so she could feel better. That was so kind and helpful!”
Check out our Ultimate Guide to Praising Children in our Growth Mindset Printables Kit. This poster for parents, teachers, and caregivers outlines how to use sparing, specific and sincere praise to boost confidence in children.
Below are some age-specific strategies for developing empathy in children. The age ranges below are a general guide; start with a few activities or ideas that you think will resonate with your child. Some activities introduced to younger children may be carried on into the later years.
DESCRIBE AND LABEL
Help children recognize their emotions and the emotions of others by describing and labeling (e.g., “You seem angry,” or, “Are you feeling sad?”).
You can also promote body awareness, as young children may find it easier to identify emotions based on how it feels in their body.
For instance, you might say, “You’re clenching your fists. You stomped your feet. You seem angry.” The more children become aware of their own emotions, the more they’ll recognize and consider the emotions of others.
As you read stories with your child, ask how the characters in the storybooks might be feeling.
Here’s one example from our list of 29 Books and Activities That Teach Kindness to Children:
Listening with My Heart by Gabi Garcia tells the story of Esperanza, who learns to be kind both to others and to herself when things don’t go as planned. Gabi Garcia’s free discussion and activity guide include questions and activities related to topics such as empathy. You can ask your child questions like:
- How does Esperanza feel at the beginning of the story? How do Esperanza’s feelings change during the story?
- How does Bao feel at the beginning of the story? How do Bao’s feelings change?
- How was Esperanza feeling when she ran off the stage?
- If you could talk to Esperanza after she ran off the stage, what would you say to her?
- How do you think it would feel if it happened to you? What would you like someone to say to you after that experience?
- What does Esperanza do to be a good friend to herself?
- What can you do to be a good friend to yourself?
You can also read about and discuss how it feels when others are mean with the book Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes, in which Chrysanthemum loves her unique name—until others start to tease her about it.
The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt is another great book for discussing emotions with young children. In this colorful story, Duncan just wants to color. Unfortunately, his crayons are on strike. Beige is always overlooked for Brown, Black only gets to make outlines, Orange and Yellow are in a standoff over which is the true color of the sun, and so on.
As Duncan tries to find a way to make all of his crayons on happy, you can talk to children about how the crayons (and Duncan) are feeling. This is also a good way to teach that everyone has different needs, hopes, and dreams, and sometimes it’s hard to find ways for everyone to agree.
You can take a similar approach with just about any story that your child loves!
Looking for a great list of books? We’ve done the work for you! Our list of top 85 growth mindset books for children and adults is included in our Growth Mindset Printables Kit.
MAKE A WE CARE CENTER
Dr. Becky Bailey, the founder of SEL program Conscious Discipline, recommends making a We Care Center to teach children empathy.
The We Care Center can be as simple as a box containing Kleenex, Band-Aids, and a small stuffed animal. This provides a symbolic way for children to offer empathy to others in distress.
For instance, a young child may notice that Mom seems sad—or even that Mom is sneezing—and offer tissues.
This teaches children to be aware of others and to develop an understanding that our responses and actions can have a positive impact.
We can also model this relationship with statements like, “Our neighbors are sick. Let’s take them some soup to help them feel better!” or, “Your brother scraped his elbow. Let’s help by bringing him a Band-Aid!”
COACH SOCIAL SKILLS IN THE MOMENT
If your child snatches her brother’s toy, ask questions like, “How do you think your brother feels? How do you feel when your brother takes your toys? Look at his face. He seems sad. What could we do instead of snatching your brother’s toy?”
At this point, you could teach a more appropriate response to want a toy, such as asking for a turn, making a trade, or playing with another toy while waiting. It’s much easier for children to learn social skills when they are taught in context.
PLAY EMOTION CHARADES
Teaching emotions through play is an important way to develop empathy in children. Games and activities can help children learn the language to express and understand complex feelings.
To play emotion charades, take turns acting out emotions and guessing what feeling is being portrayed. After a player has guessed correctly, you can also discuss the emotion with questions like:
- When do you feel sad?
- What helps you feel better when you’re sad?
- How can we help someone else when they’re feeling sad?
Lisette at the Where Imagination Grows blog suggests a helpful variation on this game. She uses the characters from the movie Inside Out to represent different emotions.
She cuts out images of the characters and glues each character onto an index card. The performer then draws an index card from a bucket and acts out that emotion. The other children hold up the corresponding Inside Out character figurine to guess the emotion.
The Growth Mindset Activity Kit includes a fun and hands-on activity called the My Emotions Fan where kids can explore various emotions in a creative way.
Visuals are another great way to help children learn. If your child seems to have trouble recognizing and/or labeling emotions, cut out pictures from magazines or print pictures from the Internet that show sad, angry, or happy faces. You can also work up to more complex emotions like scared, embarrassed, disappointed, frustrated, etc.
As you discuss how the people in the pictures are feeling, you can also ask children about times they felt the same way. Provide examples from your own life too, showing that even adults grapple with big emotions and that it’s perfectly normal.
A major component of empathy is respecting others from different backgrounds.
“It can be hard for kids to make the jump from how they feel when something happens, to how someone else might feel about the same thing. And sometimes that’s especially hard when the other person looks or behaves differently than they do.”
- Rachel Busman, a clinical psychologist
Give your child opportunities to play with children of different races, backgrounds, ability levels, sexes, and so on. You can also read books or watch shows featuring children who are different from your child. Help children understand and focus on what they have in common with others.
Deepen your child’s understanding of nonverbal cues by playing a game where you observe other people in a busy public place, like a park.
Note the body language of others and guess how they might be feeling. “That child’s head is down, and his shoulders are hunched like this. I think he might be feeling sad. I wonder why he feels that way?”
TEACH HEALTHY LIMITS AND BOUNDARIES
As your children grow older, it’s important that they also understand empathy doesn’t mean taking on the problems and needs of everyone around them. It doesn’t mean always saying “yes” or dropping everything to help others.
Teach your children to understand and respect their own needs by following these 3 steps.
- Create a plan for how your child can respond in certain scenarios. If, for example, another child gives an unwanted hug, your child can say, “I don’t like that. Please don’t touch me.” If a child calls your child a name, your child can say, “My name is ________. Call me that instead.”
- Create a list of scenarios in which it’s necessary to ask an adult for help, like a child refusing to take no for an answer or any situation that feels dangerous or uncomfortable. In addition, explain that being helpful to others should not involve breaking any rules or doing anything that your child isn’t comfortable with.
- Respect your child’s boundaries. If your child doesn’t like to be tickled or doesn’t want to be picked up and spun around, don’t push the issue. Say, “I understand. I won’t do it again.” This models the way your child should expect others to behave when he or she says “no.”
ENGAGE IN HIGH-LEVEL DISCUSSIONS ABOUT BOOK CHARACTERS
Read more advanced books and engage in high-level discussions about what the characters think, believe, want, and feel. How do we know?
For example, read The Invisible Boy by Trudy Ludwig, in which a boy named Brian struggles with feeling like he is invisible. He’s never invited to parties or included in games. When a new student named Justin arrives, Brian is the first to make him feel welcome. When the boys team up on a class project, Brian finds a way to shine. The book teaches children that small acts of kindness can help kids feel included and allow them to flourish.
After reading, ask questions like:
- Why did Brian feel invisible?
- How do you think being “invisible” makes Brian feel?
- How did Brian help Justin feel welcome?
- How did Justin help Brian feel more “visible?”
- Have you ever felt left out or invisible? What would have helped you feel more included or visible?
In one experimental study, 110 school kids (aged seven years) were enrolled in a reading program. Some students were randomly assigned to engage in conversations about the emotional content of the stories they read. Others were asked only to produce drawings about the stories.
After two months, the kids in the conversation group showed greater advances in emotion comprehension, theory of mind, and empathy, and the positive outcomes "remained stable for six months."
You can select books to read with your children that are directly related to empathy. Alternatively, notice what your children are reading and engage them in conversations about the characters, their emotions, and what your child might think, feel, or do in similar situations.
LOVING KINDNESS AND COMPASSION MEDITATION
Studies show that as little as two weeks of training in compassion and kindness meditations can lead to changes in brain chemistry that are linked to an increase in positive social behaviors, including empathy. These meditations also lead to increased positive emotions and social connectedness, in addition to improved health.
Loving kindness meditation involves thinking of loved ones and sending them positive thoughts. Later, your child can expand her positive thoughts to more neutral people in her life as well.
The four traditional phrases for this meditation are, “May you feel safe. May you feel happy. May you feel healthy. May you live with ease.” The exact wording you and your child use aren’t important, however; it’s about generating feelings of kindness and warmth. This meditation is also included in the Big Life Journal.
With compassion training, children visualize experiences in which they felt sad or upset, then relate to these experiences with warmth and care. They then repeat the exercise with other people, starting with close loved ones, followed by a difficult person, and finally extending compassion to humanity in general.
ENGAGE IN COOPERATIVE BOARD GAMES OR COOPERATIVE CONSTRUCTION
Research shows that successful experiences with cooperation encourage us to cooperate more in the future. Collaborating with others can encourage children to build positive relationships and to be open to developing more positive relationships in the future.
These experiences also involve discussions and debate, teaching children to consider other perspectives.
Ideas for cooperative board games or cooperative construction include:
- Play with Legos, working together to build something specific
- Race to the Treasure! (a board game in which children collaborate to build a path and beat an ogre to the treasure)
- Outfoxed! (a cooperative whodunit game)
- Stone Soup (an award-winning cooperative matching game)
- The Secret Door (a mystery board game in which children ages 5+ work together to solve the mystery behind the secret door)
SIGN UP FOR ACTING CLASSES
If your child is interested, get him involved in theater or acting classes. Stepping into the role of another person is a great way to build empathy, just as playing pretend helps young children develop understanding and compassion for others.
CREATE EMPATHY MAPS
Empathy maps include four sections: Feel, Think, Say, and Do. Choose an emotion, then brainstorm what you might say, think, and do when you feel that way.
For example: “When I feel worried, I might think I’m making a lot of mistakes or that something bad is going to happen. I say, ‘I’m sorry’ too much or, ‘I can’t do this.’ Sometimes when I’m worried, I do nothing at all. Something helpful that I can do is to take deep breaths and remind myself that everything will be okay.”
If it comes up, you can highlight the fact that what we say or do is sometimes the opposite of what we’re really feeling. You can discuss why that is and how we can relate that to showing empathy and understanding for others.
DISCUSS CURRENT EVENTS
Learn about current events and develop empathy by reading newspapers, news magazines, or watching the news together. Alternatively, you can do this activity when your child mentions a current event to you.
Ask questions like:
- How might the people involved in this situation be feeling?
- How would you feel in a similar situation?
- Is there anything we can do to help?
ENCOURAGE YOUR CHILD TO CHOOSE VOLUNTEER WORK
Encourage your child to choose volunteer work that he or she is passionate about. As children get older, they can take a more direct role in helping the community or society in general. They may even want to start their own projects or charitable organizations to solve a problem they feel strongly about.
It’s important for kids to explore the world beyond themselves. Our Big Life Journal - Teen Edition includes a section where older kids can write down and map out ways they can make a difference in the world. They can take these passions and turn them into opportunities to serve their communities.
WALK THE LINE
This activity is perfect for classrooms, summer camps, or other places with a large group of older children/teens. “Walk the Line” was demonstrated in the movie Freedom Writers.
Put a line of tape in the middle of the group, with students facing the line on each side. Read a series of statements. If the statement is true for the student, they go stand on the line.
This could include statements like “I’ve lost a family member,” “I’ve been bullied at school,” and so on. Students can also help create the prompts.
The activity shows children struggles that they have in common and helps them understand what their peers experience and feel. At the end of the activity, students return to their seats to reflect through writing and/or discussion.
One option is to have students write a letter (that they can deliver or keep to themselves) to a student who walked to the line on one of the same prompts they moved on, sharing more about this experience or offering words of encouragement.
Empathy can be taught and developed over time, and it will give your child a foundation on which to build sound judgment, success, and positive and healthy relationships throughout their life. Choose one or two activities from this list and get started!