How can I teach my child empathy?

Michele Borba
Here are some parenting practices that help teach your child empathy:
  • To teach kids empathy, you must show kids empathy.
  • Show the impact empathy has on others so your child understands it's important.
  • If you want your child to feel for others demand your child to feel for others.
  • Provide opportunities for your child to experience different perspectives and views.
  • Experiencing different perspectives helps enable children to empathize with the needs and views of others.
Charles J. Sophy, MD
Adolescent Medicine

Empathy is the ability to put yourself in another's place and to take that perspective into account in your relationship with the other person. Empathy is caring about the answer to the question, "How would I feel if I were in her shoes?" Unlike skills that require abstract thought, such as mathematics or reading, empathy is a way of relating to others. It cannot be taught formally, but is learned by imitating those who are important to us.

You need to set the example — be empathetic and caring to your child and others, and she will learn. Because she loves you, believes you are perfect, and wants to be just like you, she will grow up wanting to treat herself and others with the same loving kindness she gets from you. By understanding your child's needs and responding to them in a loving way, you teach her to understand and love herself and to understand and cherish others.

It's also important to account for your child's developmental immaturity. Infants and young children normally base their sense of well-being on their ability to get what they want when they want it. The toddler or preschooler who wants a toy will grab it, whether or not it is attached to another child, and she won't want to share a favorite toy with a friend who asks for it. This is normal behavior for her age, and you do not need to worry that if you don't come down hard on her she will grow up to be selfish and uncaring.

In reality, your child will not be ready to be a sharing, caring friend until after she turns 3. At that point, she will share because (most of the time) her friends will be more important to her than her possessions. So you don't need to try to teach your child about the feelings and rights of others. Just continue to love, care for, and enjoy her. By imitating you, she will learn to treat others with the same consideration.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.