4 tips to build kids’ empathy during COVID

The COVID-19 crisis has changed how we connect with each other. Many kids are spending time with only their caregivers. And they may be around fewer kids than usual. This can make it hard for kids to understand other perspectives — or even remember that theirs isn’t the only one that matters. 

Building kids’ empathy during COVID helps them think about others. And research shows that having concern for others reduces feelings of isolation. Here are four ways to build empathy in challenging times.

1. Talk about the phrase “same storm, different boat.”

At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, writer Damian Barr said, “We are not all in the same boat. We are all in the same storm. Some of us are on super-yachts. Some have just the one oar.” 

“Same storm, different boat” is a great visual. It can help kids understand that we’re all dealing with the same pandemic, but we don’t all have the same resources to help us. 

With younger kids, help them picture the difference between a large, sturdy yacht and a small boat that might have trouble navigating a storm. Then talk about what people need to build a sturdy boat — things like a job, a place to live, enough food to eat, someone to help with schoolwork, and good health. With older kids, this part of the conversation can be more in-depth.

You can talk about what you have — or need — and what kind of boat that means you’re in. Have kids think about how it might feel to be in the storm in other types of boats or with just an oar. 

2. Show what empathy looks like. 

There are plenty of ways to show empathy in action during COVID. You can start by modeling empathy. Share that you understand how hard it can be to not see your friends during the pandemic. Make a point of thanking the employees at stores for being there during these scary times. 

Talk about how others are showing empathy. If you’re an essential worker, tell stories of how other people are showing that they understand your perspective. If you live in a bigger city, you might hear applause and banging of pots at night to thank essential workers. If this isn’t happening in your neighborhood, look at news stories or videos about this together. Talk about how people are finding ways to show they understand how hard others are working to keep us safe. 

3. Have a “we’re all in this together” attitude.

Let kids know that you’re expecting everyone to pitch in to take care of and care about each other. That might mean making a chore list so that everyone helps clean the space you’re in. Taking responsibility for part of a shared space helps kids practice thinking about others and about how their actions can make a difference. 

Try sharing your own emotions openly when you’re having a tough day. Letting kids know that you’re sad or overwhelmed sometimes allows them to be open about their own feelings. It also helps them see that having a hard time — and finding a way to handle it — is something that happens to all of us.

4. Find ways to support other people. 

Empathy isn’t always about emotions. It’s also about actions and being helpful to other people. Practice supporting others with your kids or students. 

Together you can write notes to brighten the day of someone you know who lives alone. Or you might talk about the risks and benefits of picking up groceries for someone who is sick or at higher risk for COVID. Kids may have other ideas, too, so don’t forget to ask them for suggestions. 

Dive deeper

Empathy isn’t just important during COVID, and it’s not just for kids. Learn why it’s important to show kids empathy.

For parents and caregivers: Learn how to respond to kids with compassion. And then explore more ways to teach empathy to kids.

For educators: Learn why teaching with empathy is important. Then find ways to help all kids be more resilient