8 ways to teach empathy to your child

By Kate Kelly

At a glance

  • Feeling and showing empathy is a skill that kids learn over time.

  • Some kids need extra help in developing this skill.

  • You can teach your child to show empathy in situations throughout the day.

Every parent wants to raise a child who shows empathy toward other people. You may not be sure how to teach empathy to your child, though. And teaching empathy can be especially tricky if your child has certain learning and thinking differences.

A child who shows empathy is able to understand and appreciate the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of someone else. But kids with attention issues or social skills issues may struggle with this skill.

For instance, some kids with may be moving so quickly that they’re not aware of how another person is feeling. They may also not be able to focus on the situation. Kids with social skills issues like (NVLD) often have trouble picking up on nonverbal cues. They may not notice or understand the emotions people are showing.

That doesn’t mean these kids aren’t caring people. It does mean they may need extra help learning to recognize and respond to people’s emotions.

When kids have trouble with empathy, there are specific things you can say and activities you can do to help them develop this skill. Here are eight ways to teach empathy.

1. Show empathy to kids when they’re upset.

Being sensitive to how kids are feeling can help them understand what it’s like for other people when someone shows empathy. Here’s what that might look like:

You’re trying to get dinner ready and your child is demanding ice cream. Instead of getting angry, try to let your child know that you understand that feeling. You might say. “I know you really want ice cream now. But the rule is dinner first, then dessert. Let’s write down on the chalkboard exactly when you can have ice cream.”

2. Discuss alternative strategies.

Do this when your child is calm, not in the heat of the moment. You might say, “You did a good job waiting until after dinner for ice cream. But what else could we have said or done to make our conversation about it more pleasant?”

3. Raise awareness of nonverbal cues.

Kids with social skills issues often struggle to pick up on social cues. For example, downcast eyes and slumped posture might not register as “sad” to them. They may need help recognizing the messages from different types of body language, facial expressions, and tones of voice, and knowing what they each mean.

Try looking at pictures or watching TV shows on mute. You can help your child identify and label the emotions of the people on the TV. This is good practice for recognizing and identifying signs of different emotions in real life.

4. Play games.

Learning empathy shouldn’t be a chore for your child. You can even make it fun. Sit on a bench at the playground or at the mall with your child. Try to guess the mood of people who walk by, and explain what clues made you think a person was happy, sad, or mad.

This kind of game helps your child tune in to how expressions, body language, and tone of voice can show how someone feels.

5. Role-play different scenarios.

Some kids with social skills or attention issues have trouble imagining how another person feels. That can be true in everyday situations or in more serious situations, such as when a friend or a family member is coping with grief. Acting out scenarios, such as not being invited to a birthday party, can make it easier for your child to see another person’s point of view.

6. Model empathy in the moment.

When your child shows a lack of empathy in a social situation, model empathy. For example, maybe during the walk to school, another child drops an art project. Your child laughs.

You may be tempted to correct your child on the spot. Instead, jump in to help the other child. You might say, “Can I help you put it back together? Let us help you carry your books.”

7. Feature pets in discussions about feelings.

This strategy can lighten the discussion. For example, when your cat is at the window, entranced by a bird, you can ask, “What do you think Sparky is thinking? Would now be a good time to pet him?” If the dog prances with joy when your child walks through the door, ask, “Would Sadie feel sad if you ignored her?” (Read more about pets and kids with ADHD.)

8. Be ready to change tactics slightly.

If the “How would you feel…” strategy isn’t working, move the spotlight to yourself. You can say something like, “I remember a time when I was waiting in line at a pizza place and it was taking forever. And then someone didn’t see there was a line and they gave their order before I could!”

Talking about how you felt — instead of making your child the center of the action — can be a subtle, helpful change. It helps your child focus on another person’s feelings. And it can make the discussion feel less intense for a child who’s tired of being “talked to” about social skills.

More ways to help your child learn empathy

Kids who have a hard time with empathy need explicit instruction in this key skill. It’s not a quick process, however. So be prepared to teach it over and over until your child starts to pick it up. Working on other social skills is important, too.

Discover apps to help your kids with social skills issues. And learn about Social Thinking, an approach to teaching social skills.

Key takeaways

  • Being sensitive to what your child is feeling shows your child what empathy can look like.

  • Playing games to practice reading nonverbal cues can help your child tune in to how others are feeling.

  • Teaching empathy can be a long process, so be prepared to teach this skill over and over again.

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    About the author

    About the author

    Kate Kelly has been writing and editing for more than 20 years, with a focus on parenting.

    Reviewed by

    Reviewed by

    Lynne Kenney, PsyD is a Harvard-trained pediatric psychologist and international educator in Scottsdale, Arizona.