5 Practical Ways To Build Empathy In Your Children

Build empathy in your children

Believe it or not, sympathy and empathy are not the same thing.

My son, who is both ADHD and high functioning autistism, has no problem feeling sympathy for another child who has been hurt.

Sympathy is more self-involved, he is feeling sorry for the other child.

Empathy on the other hand is much harder to express.

In order to be empathetic, one has to understand the feelings of the other person. As in, “walk in their shoes.”

Experiencing the emotions of another human is hard for many adults, so you can imagine how hard it is for a young child to pull it off.

This difficultly is compounded when living with ADHD and Autism.

We all know that emotional intelligence is important.

Studies have shown that children in kindergarten who show more empathy do better in school, have more positive peer interactions, and enjoy better mental health later in life. Source

Children want to be good people, but they need our support and guidance to build empathy and emotional intelligence skills.

5 Practical ways to build empathy in your children


Work on yourself

On the surface this seems obvious. But really ask yourself, “Am I modeling empathy to my children?”

I will be the first to admit, I am not always the picture of empathy. There are certainly times when I am impatient in line at the grocery store, and I doubt I hide it well.

In fact, I probably lack empathy for my child in certain moments.

For example, when I get calls from the principle of my son’s school about his behavior on the playground, my go-to emotions are anger and embarrassment.

I have to stop myself and really think about the emotions behind the behavior.

I have to put myself into his shoes. Believe me, it’s not easy but I am working on it.

Use their favorites

When my son and I read Ninjago books, or when we watch a movie together we frequently discuss the characters and their feelings.

I make a point to ask him, “Why do you think/he she did that?” or “What do you think he was feeling?”  Many times he says he doesn’t know. But often he will at least make a guess.

Open the door to discussing other people’s emotions by using super heroes and even strangers on the street.

You might be surprised how well your child can identify with the feelings of others if you ask the right questions.

What am I feeling right now?

Whenever my son says something unkind to me I ask him, “What am I thinking/feeling?”

If he seems unsure I ask him to look at my face. Despite his diagnosis he can read facial expressions, he just sometimes chooses not to.

Usually he interprets my face and angry. Then I say, “What else?”

He almost always guesses correctly. I am feeling sad, or hurt, or even embarrassed.

Also, try asking, “What are you feeling right now?” after your child has behaved in a way that is not acceptable to you.

Chances are, they are feeling a number of emotions about their own behavior. If you can show empathy for what they are feeling, it is a chance to model.

How would you feel?

The other day my son punched another child on the playground because he grabbed his shirt while they were playing. Obviously, we discussed why this was not appropriate.

But we also did something else.

I asked him, “How would you feel if you had gotten punched?”

Looking at the floor he confessed, “sad, I would feel sad.”

He was silent for a bit after that, but he got it. He felt empathy for the child he had punched.

This process didn’t completely solve the problem, but it was a step in the right direction.

Pretend they are already empathetic

My two-month-old nephew was hungry and crying the other day when we were visiting. E kept touching his back and looking at me with scared eyes.

“Mommy, maybe he needs milk.”  “Mommy, why is he crying?”

As I held my flailing nephew I whispered in his ear, “Buddy you are so sensitive, such a good cousin.”  He beamed from ear to ear.

Telling your children when they do something right goes a long way toward building empathy.

As Karen from Hey Sigmund suggests, “Help them to develop their identity as kind, compassionate, empathic humans by talking to them as though they already have these qualities.”

How To Nurture Empathy In Your Children via Hey Sigmund

Finally, always remember children yearn to do the right thing. It’s human nature.

Children want to be good people, but they need our support and guidance to build empathy and emotional intelligence skills.

Keep plugging away. Model the behavior you want to see.

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