Tips for Teaching Empathy to Children in a Dysregulated World

Teaching empathy? That might sound strange if you think of empathy as an innate, fixed trait or a talent that some people are born with, and others lack. But empathy isn’t an all or nothing proposition. It isn’t something that unfolds automatically, in every situation. It isn’t even a single ability or skill. There are different facets and degrees of empathy, and the way we socialize children matters.

Here are some tips inspired by scientific research for teaching empathy to children.

#1: Provide children with the support needed to develop strong self-regulation skills

Feeling someone else’s pain is unpleasant, so it shouldn’t surprise us if a child’s first impulse is to shrink away. Children are more likely to overcome this impulse when they feel secure, and have strong self-regulation skills. We, as caregivers can foster empathy by being “emotion coaches.” That means acknowledging (rather than dismissing) our children’s negative feelings, and engaging them in conversation about the causes and effects of emotions. It also means helping children find constructive ways to handle their bad moods.

#2: Seize everyday opportunities to model empathetic feelings for others

When you observe someone in distress (in real life, on TV, or in a book), talk with your child about how that person must feel (Pizarro and Salovey 2002). Even a very brief conversation can have a powerful effect.

#3: Help children discover what they have in common with other people

Adults tend to feel greater empathy for an individual when they perceive the individual to be similar to them. They also find it easier to empathize with someone who is familiar. Research suggests that children have similar biases (e.g., Zahn-Waxler et al 1984; Smith 1988). One of the best ways to encourage empathy is to make children conscious of what they have in common with others. Another is to get out and meet people from different backgrounds, and learn about what life is like in other places.

#4: Foster empathy through literature and role-playing

Fictional stories and real-life narratives offer excellent opportunities for teaching empathy and sharpening a child’s perspective-taking skills. What do the characters think, believe, want, or feel? And how do we know it? When we actively discuss these questions, children may learn a lot about the way other people’s minds work (Dunn et al 2001). Research also suggests that role-playing is useful to foster empathic development. Role paying is a helpful way to practice and problem solve real life experiences, prior to engaging in them. Just like a mock job interview can help an individual to increase their problem solving and off the cuff response prior to going on a real-life interview, so too can role playing of emotional situations increase a child’s capacity for empathy.

#5: Help children improve their face-reading skills

It’s hard to show empathy if you can’t read faces well. Some children are at a disadvantage because they misinterpret facial expressions. It is commonly believed that approximately 90% of communication is expressed via non-verbal means (facial expression, tone of voice etc.) this is an example of the age-old adage “it’s not what you say, but how you say it.” When we misinterpret someone’s intent it is difficult to empathize with them correctly. By working with your child to increase these skills, you also foster empathy.

Sources:

Dunn J, Brown J, Slomkowski C, Tesla, C and Youngblade L. 1991. Young children’s understanding of the other people’s feelings and beliefs: Individual differences and their antecedents. Child Development 62: 1352–1366. (Waters et al 1979; Kestenbaum et al 1989; Barnett 1987).

Hoffman ML and Saltzein HD. 1967. Parental discipline and the child’s moral development. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 5: 45–57. (Pizarro and Salovey 2002).

Parker AE, Mathis ET, Kupersmidt JB. 2013. How is this child feeling? Preschool-aged children’s ability to recognize emotion in faces and body poses. Early Educ Dev. 24(2):188–211.

Smith PK 1988. The cognitive demands of children’s social interactions with peers. In RW Byrne and A Whiten (eds.), Social experience and the evolution of intellect in monkeys, apes, and humans. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Zahn-Waxler C, Hollenbeck B and Radke-Yarrow. 1984. The origins of empathy and altruism. In MW Fox and LD Mickley (eds): Advances in animal welfare science. Humane Society of the United States.

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