parents are noticing that their children don’t seem very empathetic.
Parents and teachers are concerned that too many children don’t appear
to notice others’ feelings or care if others are upset.
Empathy is the cornerstone for meaningful, close, and satisfying
connections between people – both children and adults. We want our
children to care about others. We want them to be able to look at
things from the other’s perspective – not just from their own. Seeing
only your own perspective makes you more self-centered and selfish and
less likely to take responsibility for your actions. People who
understand how their actions affect others are likely to choose more
appropriate behavior, show better judgment, and repair rifts in their
relationships with others.
Some children tend
to be more naturally empathetic and some – even in the same family –
seem to lack the trait. The jury is still out on how much is genetic
versus environmental, but it is clear that children can become more
empathetic with help from the adults in their lives. Parents are the
first and foremost teachers.
Before we look at
strategies for teaching empathy, let’s clear up one area of confusion
about the “sensitive child. There are two very different types of
sensitivity. There is the empathetic person who is sensitive to others
and reads people’s feelings and moods easily. And there is the
sensitive person whose feelings are often hurt by the smallest of
things – a joke, a tone of voice, etc. It’s important to know that
being self-sensitive doesn’t mean a person is empathetic – the opposite
may be true. Thin-skinned people are overly sensitive to comments.,
etc., which would roll right off most people’s backs. Overly or
self-sensitive children and adults often over-react to the
interpersonal environment and take things too personally, suffering
unnecessary emotional pain. They tend to use so much energy in that way
that they have little left to notice other people’s distress and reach
out to them. Self-sensitive people often need help learning
not to be so affected by others before they can be empathetic. There
are ways that people can become less thin-skinned, but that’s a topic
for another article.
Now, let’s look at strategies for teaching empathy to children:
make sure you don’t overserve your child. Don’t do things for him that
kids his age can do for himself, such as putting away his toys or
picking up his dropped pencil. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do
occasional kindnesses, but if you fall into a pattern of acting as your
child’s servant, he learns that only he and no one else matters.
Second, put yourself in the picture. When he does or says something unkind or disrespectful to you, tell him how you feel when anyone
does that to you. It’s more effective to emphasize that you would be
annoyed or hurt by that behavior from anyone, not just him, so he
understands that it’s not about him personally. Then explain that he’ll
need to do something very kind to make it up to you. If your child can
ignore you, be rude to you, or treat you like a servant, his empathy
for anyone but himself will be lacking.
Third, create a family culture in which parents talk about incidents
from their day (though not situations serious enough to worry or upset
a child) and how they made them feel – the enjoyable and the difficult
emotions. Show that you’re not perfect and encourage the family to be
supportive and kind. This helps children talk more openly about
themselves without fear of being judged or advised.
as you talk about incidents in your day, try to give the views of the
other participants as well as your own. Discuss why the people involved
might have done what they did. For example, you might describe saying
something angry to your friend because she was late meeting you for
lunch, and then learning that her car wouldn’t start. Too many children
are told only their parents’ side, which can sound like it’s always the
other person’s fault. Try discussing why people acted the way they did.
If someone was unfair or unkind, help your children consider that the
others might have been preoccupied or upset about something.
Children develop more empathy if parents and other family members
are encouraged to look at others’ motivations, feelings, and behavior.
Encourage the children to talk about what else a person could do in a
difficult interaction to make it go better. Family members might enjoy
Fifth, when your child gets
to the point where he shares the things he did in his day that weren’t
kind enough to others, think about how you’re trying to teach him
empathy. The most common method of teaching empathy -- asking: “How
would you feel if someone said that to you?” – is often ineffective
because most children either have developed an automatic answer like
“bad” or “unhappy,” or use a more teasing and defiant answer such as,
“I’d like it.” When discussing their behavior, it’s more effective to
ask thought-provoking questions, such as: “What do you think that
person is thinking about you now?” or “What will the boy you were
teasing be telling his parents?” or “Now what are your thoughts about
what happened?” Then you can ask, “What ideas do you have about what
you could have done differently?” Finally, as your child makes
efforts to work on his empathy, of course, you’ll want to praise him.
And as with any skills we teach our children, parents often improve as
well – that’s another of the many joys and benefits of raising
Annye Rothenberg, Ph.D., author, has been a child/parent
psychologist and a specialist in childrearing and child development for more than 25 years. Her parenting psychology practice is
in Emerald Hills, California. She is also on the adjunct faculty in
pediatrics at Stanford University School of Medicine. Dr. Rothenberg
was the founder/director of the Child Rearing parenting program in Palo
Alto, California, and is the author of the award-winning books Mommy and Daddy are Always Supposed to Say Yes … Aren’t They?, Why Do I Have To?, I Like To Eat Treats, I Don't Want to Go to the Toilet, I Want To Make Friends and I'm Getting Ready For Kindergarten. These are all-in-one books with a story for preschoolers and a manual
for parents. Her new series is for elementary school childen and their parents. The first book is Why Can't I Be the Boss of Me? (2015). For more information about her books and to read her
articles, visit www.PerfectingParentingPress.com. To find out about her counseling practice and her speaker presentations, go to AnnyeRothenberg.com.