General Education

Teaching Children Empathy

Teaching Children Empathy
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Caryn Reitkopp February 25, 2015

Empathy is an important component in a child’s social and emotional development. Learn why it’s important and how to foster it in your children.

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The Components of Empathy

Daniel Goleman, an internationally-known psychologist, believes that empathy is one of the five elements of emotional intelligence. According to him, empathy itself has three related components:

  • Cognitive empathy enables people to recognize the emotions and thinking processes of other people.
  • Emotional empathy allows an individual to experience someone else’s emotions.
  • “Compassionate empathy,” or empathic concern, is founded on the first two, and enables a person to both experience another’s feelings and offer help.
  • Goleman believes leaders, teachers, and parents need all three components to be effective.

The Development of Empathy

Every child is born with the capacity to be empathetic, but empathy may not develop without nurturing. While some children naturally exhibit kindness and empathy, these characteristics need to be fostered at an early age. By providing nurturing interactions, parents and other caregivers lay the groundwork for empathetic behaviors. The strong feelings of love that an infant feels for these people provide the emotional bonds on which empathy is based.

According to Zero to Three, a not-for-profit organization that provides information and resources about nurturing early development, we should begin teaching empathy and its associated vocabulary to children at a young age because “the critical period for language learning begins to close at around 5 years old and ends around puberty.” Social and emotional development continue through adolescence, but they start with the crucial foundation of emotional attachment and early language exposure that occur from birth to 12 months old.

Infants and toddlers also learn empathy by observing adults as they model and encourage empathetic behaviors. When an infant gets a reaction from another person, he is learning to read body language — a primary means of expressing emotions. As babies grow to be toddlers, it is important for caregivers to point out how other children are feeling in order to attach language to emotional expressions and to draw attention to the effects we have on one another.

The Role of Play

Below is an example of a scenario in which characters use phrases that express empathy and take action based on that understanding.

  • “It looks like Johnny is sad because you took his toy away.”
  • “Let’s bring him a tissue to see if that helps him feel better.”
  • “Look Brian, when we brought Joey the tissue, he started to smile.”
  • “It looks like he is feeling better because we brought him the tissue.”
  • “You should feel good inside because you helped someone feel better when he was sad.”
  • Many experts recommend role playing, imaginative games, and stories or books — especially those with animal characters — to help young children understand and practice empathetic behaviors. By asking kids to describe and explain characters’ feelings and actions, we teach them how to read emotional expressions and practice helping someone in need.

If your child is struggling with emotional cues because of Austism Spectrum Disorder, follow the link to learn how to support his learning style.

The Journey Continues

As children get older, adults can continue to promote empathy by encouraging them to see things from another person’s perspective. This is more likely to happen if the child cares about the person and feels connected, but fiction or news stories can also provide useful opportunities to engage in these conversations. Relationships — even in moments of conflict — are founded on the capacity to understand another person’s emotions and to care enough to want to negotiate when a conflict arises.

The Social Benefits

By fostering empathy in our children, they are less likely to engage in bullying behaviors and more likely to stand up when they see another child being bullied, according to psychologist, author, and anti-bullying expert, Dr. Joel Haber. As he stated in a 2013 interview given to Erika MacLeod of Start Empathy, “Empathy is the cornerstone of human behavior and an antidote of bullying.” Teaching our children empathy provides them with the key ingredients to develop satisfying relationships and lifelong happiness.


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