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Discovering Empathy

by Dr. Susan Canizares | June 14, 2016 | Child Development

shutterstock_127810658As adults, we’re compelled to think about other people’s perspectives before we act or speak. If we don’t consider how our words and actions will make others feel, we may end up seeming impolite or even thoughtless. When you’re able to imagine a situation from someone else’s perspective, or “put yourself in their shoes,” you gain a better understanding of their thoughts.

Empathy and perspective-taking are complex skills that involve a sense of self-awareness and the ability to separate one’s own feelings from the feelings of others. It’s a function of both compassion and of seeing from another person’s perspective. It typically begins to develop around age 1, and continues to progress into adulthood.

Children who have empathy are able to recognize how their behavior impacts other people.  Studies suggest that children are more likely to develop empathy and perspective-taking skills when their own emotional needs are consistently met.

Fortunately, it is possible to teach a child to take the perspective of others. You can start by playing imitative or reciprocal games with your infant. Use simple facial expressions, stick out your tongue, and play “peek-a-boo.” As your child gets older, continue to talk to them about their day. Ask open-ended questions and reflect on what they have said, with comments such as, “You must have been very disappointed.”

Here are additional things you can do to help strengthen your child’s sense of empathy.

  • Model caring behaviors. Talk about your feelings for others and how you may feel similar. Take opportunities to ask, “How would you feel if that were you?”
  • Name emotions. Introduce new words such as lonely, frustrated, content, and anxious. Use simple, clear explanations, such as, “It makes Erin feel lonely when you say you won’t play with her.”
  • Interpret emotions. When reading with your child, ask questions about the characters in the story:
    • “Why do you think the boy looks sad?”
    • “What could have happened to make the girl look so frustrated?”
  • Role-play helpful behaviors. Read books that deal with feelings. Engage in meaningful dialogue about how the character might be feeling. Children learn skills and gain insight into helping, as well as how to take a different perspective.
  • Be supportive. Provide a supportive environment and set realistic standards for your child.
  • Find ways for your child to show care for others. As they get older, help them find volunteer opportunities. Praise their acts of empathy. When your toddler shares with a younger sibling who’s crying, make sure they know you appreciate this thoughtful action.
  • Teach conflict resolution. When a child does something wrong to another child, demonstrate how to be empathetic to that child. Then point out how your child’s acts are related to the other child’s feelings. Make your child aware of the consequences of their actions. This helps with understanding the feelings of others.

Research has found that children who were unable to show empathy as toddlers were more likely to have increased behavior problems in first grade. Teaching empathy at a young age could be vital in preventing future behavior problems. Check out these resources for more information: