Building Empathy In Children

by | Jul 7, 2020

boy with arms crossed smiling

In the midst of our  current public health crisis and cultural conflict, building empathy in children has become more important than ever.

First things first – sympathy and empathy are not** the same thing.

My son, who is both ADHD and high functioning autistism, has no problem feeling sympathy for another child who has been hurt.

Sympathy is more self-involved, he is feeling sorry for the other child.

Empathy on the other hand is much harder to express.

In order to be empathetic, one has to understand the feelings of the other person.

One has to be able to, “walk in their shoes.”

Experiencing the emotions of another human is hard for many adults, so you can imagine how hard it is for a young child to pull it off.

This difficultly is compounded when living with ADHD and Autism.

We all know that emotional intelligence is important.

Studies have shown that children in kindergarten who show more empathy do better in school, have more positive peer interactions, and enjoy better mental health later in life. Source

Children want to do the right thing, but they need our support and guidance to build empathy and emotional intelligence skills.

 building empathy in children


Work on yourself

On the surface this seems obvious. But really ask yourself, “Am I modeling empathy to my children?”

I will be the first to admit, I am not always the picture of empathy. There are certainly times when I am impatient while driving. I often get frustrated when I’m trying to give my son instructions.

In fact, I probably lack empathy for my child on a regular basis.

When I used to get calls from the principle of my son’s school about his behavior on the playground, my go-to emotions were anger and embarrassment.

Anger and embarrassment are self-focused emotions.

As parents we have to train ourselves to stop and think about the emotions behind the behavior. Behavior is communication. I forget where I read that but I know I did.

You and I need to practice and model empathy for our children.

Use their interests

When my son and I read the Harry Potter books, or when we watch a movie together we frequently discuss the characters and their feelings. We had a very long discussion about why Snape doesn’t like Harry because his father had so grossly mistreated him.

I make a point to ask him, “Why do you think he did that?” or “What do you think he was feeling?”  Many times he says he doesn’t know. But often he will at least make a guess.

Open the door to discussing other people’s emotions by using super heroes and even strangers on the street.

Use what is currently going on in our country to talk to your child about the consequences of a lack of empathy on a large scale.

You might be surprised how well your child can identify with the feelings of others if you ask the right questions.

What am I feeling right now?

Whenever my son says something unkind to me I ask him, “What am I thinking/feeling?”

If he seems unsure I ask him to look at my face. Despite his diagnosis he can read facial expressions, he just sometimes chooses not to.

Usually he interprets my face and angry. Then I say, “What else?”

He almost always guesses correctly. I am feeling sad, or hurt, or even embarrassed.

Also, try asking, “What are you feeling right now?” after your child has behaved in a way that is not acceptable to you.

Chances are, they are feeling a number of emotions about their own behavior. If you can show empathy for what they are feeling, it is a chance to model.

Feel free to offer them a redo.

Real Life examples

Years ago my son punched another child  because he grabbed his shirt while they were playing tag. I got a call from the school and was not thrilled. We discussed why the behavior was inappropriate.

But we also did something else.

I asked him, “How would you feel if you had gotten punched?”

Looking at the floor he confessed, “sad, I would feel sad.”

He was silent for a bit after that, but he got it. He felt empathy for the child he had punched.

This process didn’t completely solve the problem, but it was a step in the right direction.

they are already empathetic

My two-month-old nephew was hungry and crying the other day when we were visiting. E kept touching his back and looking at me with scared eyes.

“Mommy, maybe he needs milk.”  “Mommy, why is he crying?”

As I held my flailing nephew I whispered in his ear, “Buddy you are so sensitive, such a good cousin.”  He beamed from ear to ear.

Telling your children when they do something right goes a long way toward building empathy.

As Karen from Hey Sigmund suggests, “Help them to develop their identity as kind, compassionate, empathic humans by talking to them as though they already have these qualities.”

How To Nurture Empathy In Your Children via Hey Sigmund

Finally, always remember children yearn to do the right thing. It’s human nature.

As Ross Greene points out in all of his books, it’s never about intentional bad behavior, it’s about lagging skills.  (affiliate link. See my full disclosure)

Children want to be good people, but they need our support and guidance to build empathy and emotional intelligence skills.

Wanna meet other ADHD moms? Join the Enclave peer coaching group!

I bring together brilliant ADHD women to manage our emotions, tell our stories, and create change so that we can build calmer, more satisfying lives with ADHD.