5 Ways to Teach Your Child Empathy

5 Ways to Teach Your Child Empathy


By Elissa Cirignotta

Imagine an existence where it was natural and normalized to love one another, to be passionate about your life, and to live in harmony with ourselves and with others around us. Let’s talk about this. It’s time for adults to step up, show up, and become more dynamic and engaged teachers.  Our younger generation depends on us right now to guide them into a better future with our global community bound together in positivity. It’s time for us to get curious, choose happiness, over and over again, say more Thank-Yous, slow down, and just breathe.

The million dollar question…Can we live as more compassionate, empathic, connected humans? I certainly hope so. Empathy is a complex skill with several different parts. It involves a sense of self awareness and the ability to distinguish your own feelings from the feelings of others. It asks us to engage in perspective taking or alternatively to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. It requires us to acknowledge our feelings, regulate our emotional responses, and create healthy boundaries.

 Read on for 5 ways you can teach your child how to be a more compassionate little human!  

1.    Talk about Emotions!

Practice recognizing the common feelings and emotions that every person experiences throughout their lifetime… sometimes all in the course of a single day. Happiness, surprise, disappointment, sadness, anger, rage, pride, and so forth, are big time emotions. Let your child know that it is totally okay to feel them all. They are a beautiful and mysterious part of life. Try using language like, “Are you feeling hurt or disappointed? Are you angry or scared? It looks like your feelings got hurt. Are you feeling left out?” Giving these powerful feelings a name helps us maintain control over our bodies and our preceding actions. Once you’ve had a chance to identify the emotion try helping them process through what they might need. For example: “It looks like you might be feeling sad. Do you need some time to rest, a hug, or a glass of water?” For younger kids you might try using emotion cards or an emotion poster to help identify hourly emotions.

2.      Address YOUR needs. Teach your children how to handle stress by handling your own stress in a healthy way.

Your kids are watching you ALL the time. They pick up on your habits, they know when you are stressed, and they are constantly learning from you. If you lose control and yell at them every-time you feel overwhelmed you can’t expect them to do anything different. Ask yourself “How do I feel?” and “What do I need?” Be honest with yourself and with your kids. Let your family in on your process. “I am feeling very sad. I think I need to take a walk and breathe fresh air. Would you like to join me or stay with mom?”  Evaluate your needs and address them as they come up. Take care of yourself. As humans we feel a spectrum of emotions and contrary to popular belief it is OKAY to feel them ALL. Expose your kids to your emotions so that when you ask them how they feel and what they need they’ve already watched you model the process.

3.    Help kids unravel what they have in common with other people.

Let’s be real. As a species we are way more similar than we are different. That doesn’t necessarily mean that we will like everyone we meet. The world is a melting pot of different beliefs, cultural norms, and personal practices. Hopefully we are all trying our best to live happy, creative, productive lives. Learning to live in harmony with so many personalities from different life experiences can be challenging. As kids begin to understand themselves better, opportunities to explore biases and prejudices will likely emerge. Try to emphasize all the many things we have in common and CELEBRATE how our unique differences enrich our neighborhoods, schools, and greater community. Keep communication open and explore ways to keep us connected as humans. Demonstrate the value in respecting EVERYONE.

4.    Talk about and Model how our feelings influence our behavior.  

Feelings shape our behavior, our life, and our world. More precisely we shape our world to reflect or validate the way we feel. Try not to cover up feelings. Be honest with yourself and with others about how you feel. This is an extremely valuable way of taking care of yourself and advocating for your needs. Building, maintaining, and sustaining relationships is tricky, even for the best of us. Imagine how tricky this can be for an emotionally unregulated five year old. Model how to be a good friend, and how to be fully present when you are with others, stand up for what is important to you, and create healthy boundaries.  If your child hears you incessantly talking about how angry you are at a close friend in the confines of your home and then watches you pretend like everything is fine the next time you are together you are not only sending mixed messages but telling your child through your actions that it is in fact not important to advocate for your needs. Get it all out on the table, try to understand and listen to the other person’s view point, and then determine what personal boundaries you may need. Emotions are designed to appraise and summarize an experience and inform our actions. They can give us an advantage in decision making if we make proper use of them. Let yourself feel the emotions and then process them with your family or in writing. If after assessing the situation you decide to create a personal boundary that involves more space between you and your friend, tell your child why. It’s unfair to assume that we will be friends with everyone but we can instead learn how to be respectful of everyone. Go forth in bold kindness.

5.     Help kids identify other perspectives.

As you read your daily books try to understand what the characters think, believe, and feel.  Ask probing questions about how they can tell if a character is upset, frustrated, or happy.  Have conversations about what and why this is happening to the character. Apply this same type of conversation to school peers, family members, or people in the community. For example, “Did you notice that your friend Sarah was upset this morning? I bet that impacted her day. Would you like to give her a call and check in this evening?” Practice noticing how others might feel and learn to become interested in how you can offer compassion in a variety of situations.

Teaching kids empathy is one of the most important jobs of being a parent or educator. These books are great for all ages and will help make it easier to introduce the concept of Empathy. They celebrate friendship, differences, and the importance of caring for one another.

1.      Wonder

By R.J. Palacio

A rich memorable story that will pull on ALL your heartstrings. Get ready for a journey into learning how to love your inner self and be accepting of others despite what they may look like.

2.      The Invisible Boy

By Trudy Ludwig

A sweet story of empathy shows how to reach out to left-out kid at school. This story inspires kids to contemplate whether they would prefer to be invisible or bullied?

3.      Ramona the Pest

By Beverly Cleary

In this story Ramona navigates Kindergarten and explores all sorts of interesting situations and feelings!

4.      One Day and One Amazing Morning on Orange Street

By Joanne Rocklin

One very special Orange tree draws a neighborhood together in an inspiring and unique story.

5.      Stand in My Shoes

By Bob Sornson

This is a story that introduces the concept of empathy and shows kids just how easy it is to notice how others are feeling.