How to Help Children Develop Empathy

What Is Empathy?

A 4-year-old girl playing on her preschool playground fell, skinned her knee and began crying. Another little girl rushed up to her, smiled and offered the injured girl her favorite doll.
This scene is a good example of a child showing empathy. Some people, like this little girl, seem to be born empathetic. Others aren't. The good news is empathy is a skill which can be learned. The key is teaching this skill to children at a young age so they will develop into sensitive, caring adults.
Empathy is often confused with sympathy but it's not the same thing. Empathy is the ability to understand and feel what someone else is feeling. Sympathy is feeling compassion for what someone else is experiencing.
People who lack empathy may grow up to be criminals. Empathy is a crucial skill for getting along with other people and being successful in life.

Play Empathy Games

Try making up some empathy games to play with your child such as an empathy jar. Take an empty peanut butter jar or coffee can, cover it with white or colored paper and draw faces on it. Or have your child draw the faces. Talk about the faces and feelings. For example, what kind of face would you draw for angry? What does a sad face look like?
Then, write down some real-life scenarios on slips of paper, put them in the jar and have your child pick one, and read it aloud. If your child isn't old enough to read yet, you can read for them. For example, a new student joins the class and is standing alone at recess. How do you think the child feels? What could you do to help this child?
You can also write these scenarios on flash cards. Then, shuffle them, and have your child pick one.

Model Empathy

Children learn from watching other children and adults. If you model empathy, you will help your child to learn this important skill.
For example, if an older sibling sees you shivering and brings you a sweater, be sure to thank him or her. Say something such as: "Ben must have known how cold I was. Great job, Ben."
Look for real-life situations to model and discuss empathy with your child. If you are grocery shopping with your child, be sure to smile and greet the cashier. Ask your child how the cashier feels if there's a lot of people waiting in line. Or ask how does the waitress feel during a busy lunch hour.

Learn Empathy From the Media

When you read with your child or watch a movie or television show together, be alert to ways you can discuss empathy. How do the characters feel? What's it like to be in that situation?
For example, how did the three bears feel when somebody ate their porridge? How did Goldilocks feel when the bears caught her inside their house?
Ask your child how Dorothy felt during the "Wizard of Oz." How do you think Auntie Em felt when Dorothy turned up missing?

Help Your Child Help Others

Bring your child along when doing volunteer work or attending charitable events such as fund-raising walks. Even a child as young as 5 can hand out napkins, set tables or clear dishes at a soup kitchen. Talk to them about the people who stop by for dinner. How do they feel?
Bring your child to a charitable walk such as a walk to raise money for cancer research. Tell them what the event is for and how it helps others. Use language they can understand such as: "When we walk, we help sick people with cancer feel better."
Point out any cancer survivors who may be walking nearby. Ask your child how they must feel.
If you model empathy, play empathy games and get your child involved in helping others; you will help your child develop empathy. Then, your child will grow up and become an empathetic adult who makes positive contributions to his or her community.