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Teaching Children Empathy

Children taught empathy each do their part to make the world better.

Key points

  • Empathy is wired into our neurobiology, especially for those that we see as similar to ourselves.
  • We can teach children to be more empathetic through modeling and sensitive parenting.
  • Learning empathy can be an intentional process of tuning into the emotions of others.

Empathy is wired into our brains. We actually have cells in our brain called mirror neurons, which fire as if we are doing the same task as another person is doing, or feeling what they are feeling. Do you ever cringe when you’re watching someone on TV get hurt? That’s because your mirror neurons are going wild; you feel their pain on a neurological level. Mirror neurons are also the reason that yawning is contagious. Our mirror neurons fire when we watch someone else yawn and we do the same in turn.

We need empathy to realize the reality that we are all human and we all have a lot more in common than we think. Having empathy not only makes us happier as human beings, but it also creates a culture of care and nurturing that we need in order to grow into our best selves.

Empathy Is Core to Being Human

Children are born with a certain level of empathy; they have an innate desire to help others and generally “be good.” However, true empathy involves being able to take the perspective of others. Before around the age of seven, children are not able to view the world from others' perspectives, but this egocentrism declines throughout the lifespan.

If a child is continually acting in ways that hurt others (e.g., physical aggression, verbal outbursts) this is a tell-tale sign that they are not developing the ability to understand how their actions impact others. You may even be able to discern empathy development from watching movies with the child. If the child is not able to experience the story from the character’s eyes (e.g., experiencing pain when the character is hurt, fear when the character is scared, etc.), it may mean that the child is struggling to develop empathy.

It is important to note that we may not, off the bat, feel empathy equally for everyone in our species (and I should point out that primates are the same way). We have empathy for those that we see as part of our “in-group,” while we can tend to attribute negative intentions to those in our “out-group.” As people develop strong allegiances to “their side,” it’s important to fight the tendency to only give empathy to those that we see as similar to ourselves, and model this for our children.

How to Teach Children Empathy

Empathy can be taught and improved upon. Learning empathy can be an intentional process of tuning into the emotions of others (e.g., picking up on nonverbal cues), cognitively putting oneself in another’s position (e.g., asking, “What would I think about in this situation?”), and taking a step back to choose behaviors that communicate kindness rather than anger.

Far and away, the most effective method for teaching empathy to children is to show them empathy. You model for them what it’s like to understand someone else by asking open-ended questions. You help them label their emotions and tell them that it’s ok to feel however they do; this shows that you can see them and accept them. You use kind words (even when you would rather not!) because then they know that they can do the same. You show them love because this puts love into their hearts that they can give to others for the rest of their lives.

Empathy truly can change the world. When we care about others, everyone is happier. This starts in the parent-child relationship. Show your child empathy and it will change the way their brain functions, they will be more empathetic for the rest of their life. They will go on to make the world a better place.

More from Tasha Seiter MS, PhD, LMFT
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