Skip to main content

Teaching Your Child Empathy

Main
Extended
Latter-Day Saints Perspective

Can you remember a time when you heard a baby cry, and suddenly a lot of other babies started crying? You may not have known it, but that was empathy.

What is empathy?

Empathy is when we try to understand someone's feelings from their perspective, and then we desire to help that person.9 Newborn babies react instantly to the distress of others by crying themselves. They are still too young to understand how to help others, but the empathy is there.

Empathy develops as a child's brain and thinking abilities develop, but parents can have a big influence on the resulting empathy their children have. If they encourage empathy, their children will be more empathic to others. If this is neglected, children get out of practice and may stop being so empathic.

Why is teaching empathy important?

If we want our children to feel empathy and to help others, we need to help them. While some development happens as a part of growing up, parents can increase their child's potential. The Family: A Proclamation to the World states, "Parents have a sacred duty to...teach their children to love and serve one another." (¶ 6) There are dramatic differences in children with empathy and without.

Children who don't show much empathy are more prone to violence, as well as other negative actions such as aggression or other ways of acting out.9 Children who do have empathy, on the other hand, are much more compassionate and helpful to other children.13 They are also more likely to share their toys or games with others. They have better social skills, get along better with other children, and even adjust better when starting school than children who show less empathy.1 All of these are good reasons for children to develop empathy.

What can parents do to help their children develop empathy?

For all Children

  • Set an example. The best thing we can do as parents is to be an example.9 When your children act out, try to see things from their perspective and give them what they need. When they see you act with empathy, they will copy you. You can also show them by being empathetic with other people in their life.

When your child throws a tantrum, for instance, because they want to do something on their own when they aren't big enough, try to understand their frustration. Explain to them that you know it must be hard for them. When we react in an empathetic way instead of a commanding way, they will learn to do the same.

  • Make a happy home. When a child feels safe and happy at home, knowing their parents love them, they are less self-centered. When their own needs are met, they are more likely to think of others before themselves.13 Tell your children you love them; listen to them and give them your attention. When parents listen, their children to have more empathy.5,8 Spend time with your children by playing games with them and reading to them. Being able to connect with others is a skill that helps them be empathetic towards others.7
  • Give service. One activity for any age to build empathy is to give service.6 Helping at a soup kitchen as a family helps your children see other ways of life|helping them to build empathy towards those who are less fortunate. You can also leave cookies anonymously for someone you know who has been down. The point is to encourage your children to help others; even if they do not feel empathy at first, it will grow as they do it.
  • Spending time with animals. Another great thing for children is to have experience with animals. Learning compassion and caring for animals encourages the development of similar feelings in dealing with children.10 Even if they don't own a pet, feeding ducks or birds and talking about animals they see can help them learn empathy towards them.
  • Encourage them. Positive reinforcement of empathy is also helpful.1 You can say, "I really appreciate how you shared your crackers with Sarah when she didn't have any. That was very nice of you." Helping the child to see that you approve of their behavior will encourage them to be empathetic in the future.
  • Take advantage of teaching moments. Sometimes children get in trouble because they find it hard to control their emotions and to understand the feelings of others.12 When they are upset, talk to them about what they feel. When they understand how they feel, you can then help them understand how someone else would feel in the same situation. If your son Jason gets in trouble for calling others names, ask him to think about how the other kids feel. Thinking about how others feel can help him feel more empathy for others as well as influence his behavior.
  • Role play. You can help your kids practice empathy by using role-play. This is as simple as asking, "How would you feel if someone did that to you?" or telling them a story and asking them to describe the feelings of the characters.11

For younger children

  • Read with them. A great way to do this is to find children's books that show empathy, and read the stories together.3 Then you can talk about it afterwards. Learning to recognize the feelings of other people is important to showing empathy.

Here are some examples of books that focus on empathy:

1. Priscilla McDoodlenutDoodleMcMae Asks Why? by Janet Mary Sinke

2. The Boy Who Grew Flowers by Jennifer Wojtowicz

3. We're All In the Same Boat by Zachary Shapiro

4. Rabbit Hill by Robert Lawson

5. Always Room for One More by Sorche Nic Leodhas

6. Number the Stars by Lois Lowry

Of course, there are many books out there that could teach empathy; these are just a few. Almost any story has a theme about helping others or being empathetic. You can even look through the books your child already has to find books that teach empathy. By listening to any story, children learn to see a situation from another's point of view.

For older children

  • Theater. Older children can get involved in plays or drama at school; impersonating other characters can help them learn to empathize with people from different walks of life.2 By playing Cinderella, for instance, children may see what it is like for those who have a less-than-perfect home situation. This can help them learn to care for others.
  • Write poetry. This type of writing is powerful for expressing emotion, and it helps children to express what they feel when they write poetry. They can either write about their own feelings, or someone else's to try and understand how they feel. A group of students in a psychology class, for instance, wrote from the perspective of one who had a mental disorder.4 By trying to see the life of someone who was mentally ill from their perspective helped the students to feel more compassion for those with an illness.

Written by Kaitlin M. Miller, Research Assistant, and edited by Laura Padilla-Walker and Stephen F. Duncan, professors in the School of Family Life, Brigham Young University.

References

  1. Ahn, H. J. (2005). Child care teachers' strategies in children's socialization of emotion. Early Child Development and Care, 175, 49-61.
  2. Akos, P. (2000). Building empathic skills in elementary school children through group work. Journal for Specialists in Group Work, 25, 214-233.
  3. Aram, D., & Aviram, S. (2009). Mothers' storybook reading and kindergartners' socioemotional and literacy development. Reading Psychology, 30, 175-194.
  4. Connon-Greene, P. A., Murdoch, J. W., Young, A., & Paul, C. (2005). Poetry: It's not just for English class anymore. Teaching of Psychology, 32, 215-221.
  5. Cornell, A. H., & Frick, P. J. (2007). The moderating effects of parenting styles in the association between behavioral inhibition and parent-reported guilt and empathy in preschool children. Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, 36, 305-318.
  6. Lundy, B. L. (2007). Service learning in life-span developmental psychology: Higher exam scores and increased empathy. Teaching of Psychology, 34, 23-27.
  7. Moreno, A. J., Klute, M. M., & Robinson, J. L. (2008). Relational and individual resources as predictors of empathy in early childhood. Social Development, 17, 613-637.
  8. Spinrad, T. L., & Stifter, C. (2006). Toddlers' empathy-related responding to distress: Predictions from negative emotionality and maternal behavior in infancy. Infancy, 10, 97-121.
  9. Swick, K. (2005). Preventing violence through empathy development in families. Early Childhood Education Journal, 33, 53-59.
  10. Thompson, K. L., & Gullone, E. (2003). Promotion of empathy and prosocial behavior in children through humane education. Australian Psychologist, 38, 175-182.
  11. Upright, R. (2002). To tell a tale: The use of moral dilemmas to increase empathy in the elementary school child. Early Childhood Education Journal, 30, 15-20.
  12. Webster-Stratton, C., & Reid, J. (2003). Treating conduct problems and strengthening social and emotional competence in young children: The Dina Dinosaur Treatment Program. Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, 11, 130-143.
  13. Zhou, Q., Eisenberg, N., Losoya, S. H., Fabes, R. A., Reiser, M., Guthrie, I. K.et al., (2002). The relations of parental warmth and positive expressiveness to children's empathy-related responding and social functioning: a longitudinal study. Child Development, 73, 893-915.

Can you remember a time when you heard a baby cry, and suddenly a lot of other babies started crying? You may not have known it, but that was empathy.

What is empathy?

Empathy is when we try to understand someone's feelings from their perspective, and then we desire to help that person.10 Newborn babies react instantly to the distress of others by crying themselves. They are still too young to understand how to help others, but the empathy is there.

Empathy develops as a child's brain and thinking abilities develop, but parents can have a big influence on the resulting empathy their children have. If they encourage empathy, their children will be more empathetic to others. If this is neglected, children get out of practice and may stop being so empathetic. There are many stages of empathy; while young children feel empathy, they struggle to understand complex perspectives and how to express their want to help. Adults generally are better at understanding other points of view and helping others when they sense distress. Still, even adults can act like they are in an earlier stage of empathy; it is hard to understand how another person is feeling or how to help them.

Natural development of empathy

When children are older, about one year old, they are still struggling to comfort others. Children at this age confuse the distress of others with their own emotions, and will cry to comfort themselves instead. Maybe you have seen this situation:

At playgroup, Becka falls down on the playground and hurts herself. Suzie sees her fall, but instead of trying to comfort Becka, Suzie starts crying herself and goes to the teacher to be comforted.

Around two years old, children start trying to actively comfort others, though they use things that they would like instead of thinking about what others want. This is what happens when a child gives a hurt child their own favorite toy instead of something the hurt child would like. Or perhaps you've taken your best friend ice cream when something bad happens but it's your favorite flavor instead of hers.

When children are older, they start seeing things from different perspectives. They realize that while Johnny may be sad because of something, Elizabeth could be happy because of the same thing. A little older, and they look at the situation behind the feeling. They start to wonder about the reason the other person is sad, which may be more complicated than they originally thought. Consider this situation about Sarah. Sarah doesn't do well on her math test, and so of course she is sad. But Sarah also did not sleep well last night, overslept and missed breakfast. Children start realizing that many things can affect someone's distress.

Later on, older children and teenagers start realizing the perspective people can have based on their whole lives; our experiences affect how we react to things that happen. They can also feel empathy for a whole race or nation of people, such as the victims of an earthquake in Haiti or the Jews who lived during the Holocaust.6

Why is teaching empathy important?

If we want our children to feel empathy and to help others, we need to help them. While some development happens as a part of growing up, parents can increase their child's potential. The Family: A Proclamation to the World states, "Parents have a sacred duty to...teach their children to love and serve one another." (¶ 6) There are dramatic differences between children who have empathy and those who don't.

Children who don't show much empathy are more prone to violence, as well as other negative actions such as aggression or other ways of acting out.10 Children who do have empathy, on the other hand, are much more compassionate and helpful to other children.14 They are also more likely to share their toys or games with others. They have better social skills, get along better with other children, and even adjust better when starting school than children who show less empathy.1 All of these are good reasons for children to develop empathy.

What can parents do to help their children develop empathy?

For all Children

  • Set an example. The best thing we can do as parents is to be an example.10 When your children act out, try to see things from their perspective and give them what they need. When they see you act with empathy, they will copy you. You can also show them by being empathetic with other people in their life.

When your child throws a tantrum, for instance, because they want to do something on their own when they aren't big enough, try to understand their frustration. Explain to them that you know it must be hard for them. When we react in an empathetic way instead of a commanding way, they will learn to do the same.

  • Make a happy home. When a child feels safe and happy at home, knowing their parents love them, they are less self-centered. When their own needs are met, they are more likely to think of others before themselves.14 Tell your children you love them; listen to them and give them your attention. When parents listen, their children to have more empathy.5,9 Spend time with your children by playing games with them and reading to them. Being able to connect with others is a skill that helps them be empathetic towards others.8
  • Give service. One activity for any age to build empathy is to give service.7 Helping at a soup kitchen as a family helps your children see other ways of life|helping them to build empathy towards those who are less fortunate. You can also leave cookies anonymously for someone you know who has been down. The point is to encourage your children to help others; even if they do not feel empathy at first, it will grow as they do it.
  • Spending time with animals. Another great thing for children is to have experience with animals. Learning compassion and caring for animals encourages the development of similar feelings in dealing with children.11 Even if they don't own a pet, feeding ducks or birds and talking about animals they see can help them learn empathy towards them.
  • Encourage them. Positive reinforcement of empathy is also helpful.1 You can say, "I really appreciate how you shared your crackers with Sarah when she didn't have any. That was very nice of you." Helping the child to see that you approve of their behavior will encourage them to be empathetic in the future.
  • Take advantage of teaching moments. Sometimes children get in trouble because they find it hard to control their emotions and to understand the feelings of others.13 When they are upset, talk to them about what they feel. When they understand how they feel, you can then help them understand how someone else would feel in the same situation. If your son Jason gets in trouble for calling others names, ask him to think about how the other kids feel. Thinking about how others feel can help him feel more empathy for others as well as influence his behavior.
  • Role play. You can help your kids practice empathy by using role-play. This is as simple as asking, "How would you feel if someone did that to you?" or telling them a story and asking them to describe the feelings of the characters.12

For younger children

  • Read with them. A great way to do this is to find children's books that show empathy, and read the stories together.3 Then you can talk about it afterwards. Learning to recognize the feelings of other people is important to showing empathy.

Here are some examples of books that focus on empathy:

1. Priscilla McDoodlenutDoodleMcMae Asks Why? by Janet Mary Sinke

2. The Boy Who Grew Flowers by Jennifer Wojtowicz

3. We're All In the Same Boat by Zachary Shapiro

4. Rabbit Hill by Robert Lawson

5. Always Room for One More by Sorche Nic Leodhas

6. Number the Stars by Lois Lowry

Of course, there are many books out there that could teach empathy; these are just a few. Almost any story has a theme about helping others or being empathic. You can even look through the books your child already has to find books that teach empathy. By listening to any story, children learn to see a situation from another's point of view.

  • Look at pictures together. You and your children can also look at pictures of people with different emotions.2 Find pictures of people who are happy, sad, afraid, angry, and other emotions. By learning how to perceive what others are feeling in a simple way, they can gain important skills for when they are in real-life situations.

For older children

  • Moral dilemmas. These are stories or situations where there are no wrong answers, but children will answer differently depending on how they feel. It all depends on what perspective they look at the story from. Here is an example:

It seemed like it had rained almost forever! Rebekah had endured days and days of being cooped up in the house with her younger brothers due to the torrential downpours. Phone and power lines were down. The nearby river and tributaries were flooding. School had been closed for a week. Finally, the rain stopped, and Rebekah was allowed outside. Before leaving the house, however, she had to promise her mother that she would not go near any downed electrical wires or into any of the flooded areas. Rebekah decided to check out her school. The road she walked followed the bends of a very large stream that emptied into the river a couple miles ahead. The water was spilling over the banks and was moving very rapidly. Rebekah saw a small cat, claws firmly hooked in a large tree limb, coming toward her in the water. She realized that the cat could not swim to safety alone, and that it would be badly hurt or even killed when it reached the river. Rebekah was an excellent swimmer; she was a member of the local Jr. Olympics swim team. She knew that she could swim out and rescue the cat, but she also remembered her promise to her mother. What do you think Rebekah should do? Why?.12

This is a good example for children because it teaches them to look at the story from different perspectives. Have your child think of how Rebekah feels, but also have them think of how the mom must feel, and how worried she would be if she knew her daughter was going to swim in this dangerous place. Whatever choice your child makes, have them explain why that was their choice, and help them to see how their feelings influenced their decision. Did they feel bad for the cat, or did they not want the mom to be upset?

  • Theater. Older children can get involved in plays or drama at school; impersonating other characters can help them learn to empathize with people from different walks of life.2 By playing Cinderella, for instance, children may see what it is like for those who have a less-than-perfect home situation. This can help them learn to care for others.
  • Write poetry. This type of writing is powerful for expressing emotion, and it helps children to express what they feel when they write poetry. They can either write about their own feelings, or someone else's to try and understand how they feel. A group of students in a psychology class, for instance, wrote from the perspective of one who had a mental disorder.4 By trying to see the life of someone who was mentally ill from their perspective helped the students to feel more compassion for those with an illness.

Written by Kaitlin M. Miller, Research Assistant, and edited by Laura Padilla-Walker and Stephen F. Duncan, professors in the School of Family Life, Brigham Young University.

References

  1. Ahn, H. J. (2005). Child care teachers' strategies in children's socialization of emotion. Early Child Development and Care, 175, 49-61.
  2. Akos, P. (2000). Building empathetic skills in elementary school children through group work. Journal for Specialists in Group Work, 25, 214-233.
  3. Aram, D, & Aviram, S. (2009). Mothers' storybook reading and kindergartners' socioemotional and literacy development. Reading Psychology, 30,175-194.
  4. Connon-Greene, P. A., Murdoch, J. W., Young, A., & Paul, C. (2005). Poetry: It's not just for English class anymore. Teaching of Psychology, 32, 215-221.
  5. Cornell, A. H., & Frick, P .J. (2007). The moderating effects of parenting styles in the association between behavioral inhibition and parent-reported guilt and empathy in preschool children. Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, 36, 305-318.
  6. Gibbs, J. C. (2010). Moral development and reality: Beyond the theories of Kohlberg and Hoffman. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
  7. Lundy, B. L. (2007). Service learning in life-span developmental psychology: Higher exam scores and increased empathy. Teaching of Psychology, 34, 23-27.
  8. Moreno, A. J., Klute, M. M., & Robinson, J. L. (2008). Relational and individual resources as predictors of empathy in early childhood. Social Development, 17, 613-637.
  9. Spinrad, T. L., & Stifter, C. (2006). Toddlers' empathy-related responding to distress: Predictions from negative emotionality and maternal behavior in infancy. Infancy, 10, 97-121.
  10. Swick, K. (2005). Preventing violence through empathy development in families. Early Childhood Education Journal, 33, 53-59.
  11. Thompson, K. L., & Gullone, E. (2003). Promotion of empathy and prosocial behavior in children through humane education. Australian Psychologist, 38, 175-182.
  12. Upright, R. (2002). To tell a tale: the use of moral dilemmas to increase empathy in the elementary school child. Early Childhood Education Journal, 30, 15-20.
  13. Webster-Stratton, C., & Reid, J. (2003). Treating conduct problems and strengthening social and emotional competence in young children: The Dina Dinosaur Treatment Program. Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, 11, 130-143.
  14. Zhou, Q., Eisenberg, N., Losoya, S. H., Fabes, R. A., Reiser, M., Guthrie, I. K.et.al (2002). The relations of parental warmth and positive expressiveness to children's empathy-related responding and social functioning: a longitudinal study. Child Development, 73, 893-915.

Looking at others from the Lord's perspective

Empathy can be synonymous with many terms: compassion, helping, comforting, and others. However, the difference is that before we can feel empathy we need to change our perspective. We need to not only see the problems of others from their perspective but also to see that person from God's perspective.

"The spiritual assurances that a people are God's children, that they are of infinite worth to him, and that his work and glory is to exalt them in his presence|these are the beginnings of true empathy. Otherwise, there would be no urgency to love, to assist, to lift, or to save".5

When we see those around us as children of God, we see their individual worth. We see that they are like us; they are a son or daughter of their Heavenly Father, trying to endure this life well so that they may return to live with him. When we have this perspective, we are more inclined to feel compassion for them. It is part of God's plan for us to help one another on this earth and to reinforce the worth that each of us has.6 We do this by showing empathy and helping others. Charity, the pure love of Christ, is acting how he would have us act. He understands us perfectly, and he strongly desires to help us. He is our greatest example of empathy. Through the atonement, he took upon himself our sins for our sake. This means that he knows how we feel, because he took on not only our sins but our pain and sorrows as well. As it says in Isaiah, "Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows..." (53:4). Elder Neal A. Maxwell describes it in this way:

"Jesus' perfect empathy was ensured when, along with His Atonement for our sins, He took upon Himself our sicknesses, sorrows, griefs, and infirmities and came to know these "according to the flesh" (Alma 7:11-12). He did this in order that He might be filled with perfect, personal mercy and empathy and thereby know how to succor us in our infirmities. He thus fully comprehends human suffering. Truly Christ "descended below all things, in that he comprehended all things" (D&C 88:6)."3

Even though we do not fully understand how those around us feel like the Savior does, we can still act with empathy. By trying to think of how others feel, by trying to see their perspective, we can grow in our ability to empathize with others, and our desire to help will also grow. Empathy comes naturally if we have the gift of charity. By having that love of God, we are more inclined to want to understand and help those around us.4

The Savior's example of empathy

When Jesus Christ appears to the Nephites in America after his death and resurrection, he speaks to them after the darkness and destruction that occurred. With his perfect understanding, he feels compassion and shows empathy in 3rd Nephi chapter 17 while visiting with them.

"...he [Jesus] looked round about the multitude..."

  • He looks at the people to see their emotions.

"I perceive that ye are weak, that ye cannot understand all my words..."

  • He identifies what they are thinking and feeling.

"...go ye unto your homes, and ponder upon the things which I have said, and ask of the Father, in my name, that ye may understand..."

  • After identifying how the people feel, that they do not understand all that he has said, he gives them a suggestion to help them understand: to go and think about what they heard.

"...when Jesus had spoken, he cast his eyes round about again on the multitude, and beheld they were in tears, and did look steadfastly upon him as if they would ask him to tarry a little longer with him."

  • Sometimes we need to look again; maybe we didn't fully understand the first time we tried to grasp how they felt, or they could be feeling something different. Jesus looked again to see how the multitude felt, and they expressed a new emotion; they wanted him to stay with them.

"And he said unto them: Behold, my bowels are filled with compassion towards you."

  • Christ feels compassion for them when he sees that they want him to stay; even though he told them he has to go, his compassion compels him to stay so that he can comfort them.

"Have ye any that are sick among you? Bring them hither. Have ye any that are lame, or blind, or halt, or maimed, or leprous, or that are withered, or that are deaf, or that are afflicted in any manner? Bring them hither and I will heal them, for I have compassion upon you; my bowels are filled with mercy. For I perceive that ye desire that I should show unto you what I have done for your brethren at Jerusalem, for I see that your faith is sufficient that I should heal you" (v. 1-8).

  • Again, Jesus perceives that they wish to be healed; he sees their faith, and he feels compassion for them. He heals them because he feels empathy for them. Remember, Jesus says those that are afflicted in any manner. This could include people who are sad because their family members just died, those with mental illnesses, or other emotional or mental pains the people might have had. Empathy isn't just for a select few-we can feel empathy for all.

Jesus gives us a demonstration of the principles of empathy to follow; he perceives the emotions of others, he tries to fully understand all the emotions they are feeling, he feels compassion and a desire to help the Nephites, and he heals them.

Teaching and showing empathy

  • Be an example. If we want our children to have empathy, they can learn best the way we did|by example. In addition to following the example of the Savior, they can follow your example. By showing empathy to others, your children will learn from what they see.2
  • Show support to others. Sometimes, we simply need to comfort others when they are sad or lonely. Just being there can be enough. Alma the Elder says in the Book of Mormon, "...and are willing to bear one another's burdens, that they may be light; Yea, and are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort..." (Mosiah 18:9).Teach your children to help others.
  • Give service. You can shovel a neighbor's driveway, deliver cookies, or help at the bishop's storehouse together. Helping as a family helps motivate everyone to have empathy for others.
  • Don't judge by appearances. We don't always know why people act the way they do. We need to love all of God's children, not just those who appear similar to us. Be welcoming of those who are curious about our faith, as well as those who are less active.2
  • Teaching compassion through personal experience. We all have gone through trials and experienced pain and sorrow. When we remember how we felt in those situations, we can better understand how someone else is feeling. Remind your children of their own experiences when they are feeling less empathetic (Clayton, 2009).
  • Be active in helping people. Instead of waiting for someone to ask for help, offer help to them. They may not tell you what they need right away, but by being aware of their feelings and with patience, you can help those around you.

Written by Kaitlin M. Miller, Research Assistant, and edited by Laura Padilla-Walker and Stephen F. Duncan, professors in the School of Family Life, Brigham Young University.

References

  1. Clayton, L. W. (2009, November). That your burdens may be light . Ensign, 12-14.
  2. Clegg, G. M. (2004, June). Teaching our children to accept differences. Liahona, 16.
  3. Maxwell, N. A. (1999, April). Enduring well . Liahona, 10.
  4. Mickelsen, L. A. (2003, November). The Atonement, repentance, and dirty linen. Liahona, 10-13.
  5. Shumway, E. B. (1979, July). Bridging cultural differences . Ensign, 67-71.
  6. Smith, A. C. (1969, August). Let every man esteem his brother as himself . Relief Society Magazine, 625.