Why and How to Help Children Develop Strong Empathy Skills

Empathy is one of the most vital Emotional Intelligence (EI) skills you can learn. It’s the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes to understand their motivations, responses, and struggles. 

Why is empathy important, you may wonder? Through empathy, we can connect with others to build strong and healthy relationships in our communities, careers, and personal lives. 

Unfortunately, being empathetic isn’t something we’re born intuitively knowing.  

How do we help our children to develop strong empathy skills? These four tips can get you started. 

1. Model empathetic behaviour.

Your children look to you for many skills. For instance, they learn how to speak by listening to adults converse. Similarly, children learn vital social behaviours and cues by observing how their parents engage with others. 

The best way to teach empathy is by being empathetic towards your children. When children understand how it feels to receive it, they’ll better understand the benefits and the role that empathy skills play in human relationships. 

2. Talk about emotions and feelings. 

Empathy is, at its core, the ability to understand feelings and emotions. If a child feels uncomfortable expressing some emotions themself, they’ll shy away from empathizing with these emotions in others. 

Children can struggle to pick up on crucial feelings based on a lack of understanding of body language and facial cues at an early age. To help, children can try a variety of activities to work on their recognition of facial expressions.

As parents, it can be challenging to watch our children struggle with certain emotions. When they’re sad or angry, we want to fix it. However, we shouldn’t always rush to get rid of these “negative” emotions. By understanding how sadness and anger feel, and that it’s ok to feel them, children will be more comfortable showing empathy towards others when they feel these emotions.

3. Have discussions with your children about other perspectives and experiences.

Talk about empathy in a way your children can understand. For example, phrase things that clearly illustrate the feeling and why the other person may be feeling that way.

“Shawn is upset because you won’t share your toys with him. You know what it feels like to be left out or want to play with toys that other children have, right? Do you think you could pick a few toys to play with and let Shawn play with the ones you’re not using so that he’s not so sad?”

Phrasing things in this way outlines the feelings that Shawn is experiencing. It asks your child to put themselves in the headspace of a time when they may have felt frustrated and sad for the same reason. Finally, it asks your child to find a way to help their friend in a way that works for them.

You can also try our THINK-TAC-TOE empathy tool to create a dialogue with your child about empathy.

4. Read stories and watch videos that discuss empathy.

Media can be a handy tool for teaching empathy. Children can become very attached to characters in their favourite shows and books. There are also many children’s books that discuss feelings. Try some of these:

Why is empathy so important?

In our modern world, empathy is more important than ever before. We’re connected across the globe, which means different religions, cultures, backgrounds, and understandings will interact with one another. 

Without empathy, we would never consider another person’s experiences or feelings, a stumbling block in building healthy relationships in our families, professions, and social circles. Still, a lack of empathy becomes an even more significant issue when it comes to human rights and understanding. Empathy allows us to understand better the struggles and experiences of those who are different from us. 

As we collectively navigate a global pandemic and re-evaluate racial bias and injustice in our communities, it’s essential to recognize the importance of empathy. 

We teach a variety of crucial social and emotional intelligence skills at Dolphin Kids, such as empathy, resilience, and mindfulness. Sign up and get your child involved in one of our virtual or in-person summer camp programs in Vancouver, BC