What is Empathy? How to Foster Empathy in Children

Empathy is the ability for a person to understand and share the feelings of others, to recognize emotions that are being experienced by another and to understand another person’s situation from that person’s perspective (Havighurst, et.al, 2010). Helping a child understand the concept of empathy can be challenging for parents. Empathy promotes prosocial and cooperative behaviors. When children learn and use these behaviors, they are more likely to succeed in relationships and in career paths and lower potential aggression and externalizing problems (Havighurst, Wilson, Harley, Prior, & Kehoe, 2010). Parents who demonstrate empathy can influence their child’s emotional competency by regulating and expressing their own emotions and their reactions towards their child’s emotions. In addition, parents can encourage emotional competency  by discussing their child’s emotions with him or her and by coaching their child to react in appropriate ways. Here are a few tips that can help parents foster empathy in their child:

  • Establish a secure relationship with your child. Allow him or her to express how he or she is feeling and be open to understanding your child’s feelings. Discuss how certain emotions may look and feel.
  • Be a role model by showing your child how to be empathic and respectful towards others. Ask how he or she might feel in a particular situation and how to respond towards others when they feel a certain way.
  • Allow your child to understand that he or she is his or her own person with his or her own emotions and feelings and that it’s okay to feel emotions.
  • Look for books to read to your child about empathy and discuss with him or her what the character is feeling and how he or she would approach this character in a positive way.

Additional Resources

List of books to read to kids about empathy: https://www.zerotothree.org/resources/5-how-to-help-your-child-develop-empathy

References

Havighurst, S. S., Wilson, K. R., Harley, A. E., Prior, M. R., & Kehoe, C. (2010). Tuning in to kids: Improving emotion socialization practices in parents of preschool children – findings from a community trial. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 51(12), 1342-1350. doi:10.1111/j.1469-7610.2010.02303.x

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