INSIDE: Are you worried that your child lacks empathy? If you’re wondering how to explain empathy to a child and help them to care about the feelings and wishes of others, then this post is for you!
Have you been concerned that your child isn’t very empathetic? Do they seem unaware, unresponsive, or even indifferent to the feeling and wishes of others? Maybe you’re anxious that their empathy levels just aren’t developing properly, and you’re looking for ways to help.
Well, don’t worry – you’ve come to the right place. In this post, I’ll take you through all you need to know about empathy, how it develops and why it’s important.
I’ll share a step-by-step guide to help you explain what empathy is to your child. Finally, I’ll also give you some practical ways to help them become more attuned to how other people may be feeling.
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But just how do you explain empathy to a child, let alone teach them how to become empathetic? Well, let’s start at the beginning and take a look at what exactly it is.
table of contents
- What is Empathy?
- What is the Difference Between Empathy and Sympathy?
- When Does Empathy Develop in Kids?
- Why is Empathy Important?
- Is There a Child Empathy Test?
- How to Explain Empathy to a Child
- How to Teach Empathy to a Child
- Some Final Thoughts
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What is empathy?
Empathy describes how well we can imagine what someone else is going through, what they may be thinking or feeling.
According to psychologist Paul Ekman, there are three types of empathy:
This is also known as ‘perspective taking’ and refers to our ability to understand how other people may be feeling or what they may be thinking.
With this form of empathy, we can recognise another person’s perspective, but we don’t feel their emotions and instead remain reasonably detached. We may think, ‘I’d be so worried if that happened to me,’ but we don’t become personally emotionally affected.
Here, we actually feel another person’s emotions as though they were our own. We become attuned to their emotional state and experience the same feelings. It’s almost contagious – they feel something, so we start to feel it too. Maybe you watch some awful story on the news about a desperate mother in a warzone somewhere, and you start to well up. That’s emotional empathy.
This is where we not only understand what someone else is going through and experience many of the same emotions, but we are also compelled to help in any way we can. Whether it’s buying a meal for a homeless person or calling a friend who posted a sad message on Facebook, that’s compassionate empathy. Your understanding and ability to relate to another person’s emotions drive you to help them.
What is the difference between empathy and sympathy?
While empathy allows us to understand and share the feelings of others, sympathy is where we simply feel sorry or pity for them.
In the video below, Brene Brown explains the difference perfectly when she says, “Empathy fuels connection. Sympathy drives disconnection.”
When does empathy develop in kids?
Empathy is a complex skill, and it can take many years to become established. Although very young children can show signs of empathy, it is better to view its development as a work-in-progress through childhood and into adulthood.
Empathy is influenced by many factors, including our genes, personality, and the environment in which we are raised. We also need life experience and opportunities to practise empathy for it to flourish.
Why is empathy important?
In their early years, children tend to be egocentric, meaning that they are far more likely to think about themselves and their own needs than to consider others. This is entirely natural and a normal stage in any child’s development.
But as kids grow older, they need to establish a sense of empathy. It’s a crucial element in their emotional intelligence that will benefit them hugely, both within their childhood and later adult lives.
So why is it so crucial for our kids to develop empathy?
When people lack empathy, they tend to give little or no consideration to how those around them may be feeling or what they might be going through.
This inability to step into another person’s shoes and see a situation from their perspective can be extremely limiting. It can lead to a range of problems causing upset, misunderstandings, and a real disconnection in relationships.
As a child begins to develop empathy, they become aware of the differences between themselves and other people. They start to realise that we all have contrasting thoughts, opinions, and feelings, which helps them become tolerant and accepting of other people.
All of us want to feel understood by others – it’s a fundamental human need. When we know that those around us can relate to our emotions and acknowledge our thoughts, we feel valued and supported.
This is why empathy is crucial for healthy relationships and why we need to help kids learn to support others in this way. It’s the key to them forming strong and secure friendships.
Is there a child empathy test?
So now you understand the different forms of empathy and why they’re important. But are you worried that your child doesn’t demonstrate much concern for the feelings of others? Are you looking for some kind of child empathy test to check if your child is on track?
The truth is empathy is complicated, and it doesn’t always look the way you might expect it to in kids. Just because your child struggles to express their emotions, don’t assume that they lack empathy.
Although your child’s empathy levels are partly down to their biology, it’s also got a lot to do with their levels of maturity and life experience. It can be difficult to relate to how another person feels if you’ve never been in their situation yourself.
You may have a child who is extremely sensitive to the emotions of others. In fact, they may start to cry if they see another child who is upset or hurt. But just because they can sense the other child’s emotions doesn’t mean they know what to do to help.
This is when you might see some unexpected reactions from your child. Rather than helping, they may just ignore the other child or turn away. But this doesn’t mean that they don’t empathise. They may simply feel overwhelmed or not understand why the child is upset and therefore not know how to help.
So, if your child doesn’t react the way you think they should to the emotions of others, it could simply be down to a lack of understanding, maturity, and life experience.
But what about that Child Empathy Test?
If you’re still concerned, then yes, there are plenty of child empathy tests to be found online. Here’s one which you could try.
But please don’t panic. Instead, just give it some time and use some of the practical strategies below to explain what empathy is to your child and then help nurture their ability to feel and express some empathy for others.
How to explain empathy to a child?
It can be difficult to know how to explain empathy to a child as it’s quite an obscure concept. Below is an easy-to-follow script of what I would say to help a child understand it:
Empathy Script: How to Explain Empathy to a Child
Empathy is all about understanding another person’s thoughts and feelings even though we may not be in the same situation as them.
There are three types of empathy. If a friend was going through a difficult time, you might experience some of the following thoughts and feelings:
1: You may understand how they’re feeling
2: As well as understanding, you may also feel what they’re feeling
3: You may feel so strongly that you do something to help
Let’s look at each of these in turn:
1: When you understand how another person is feeling:
If your friend lost their favourite toy, you might understand that they are upset because you know how much your favourite toy means to you. This is a type of empathy. But although you realise that your friend is upset and why, you don’t feel upset yourself because it wasn’t your toy.
2: Often, we can also feel another person’s feelings:
Imagine that your friend’s mum has become ill and had to go to hospital. Naturally, your friend is very upset and worried. You might start to imagine how you would feel if that was your mum.
Although your mum is perfectly well, you could also start to feel upset and worried. This is another form of empathy where you begin to have the same feelings as your friend even though you are not in the same situation as them.
3: We may feel so strongly that we do something to help:
What would you do if you saw a child at school who was upset because they had nobody to play with?
Perhaps you’ve been in that situation yourself and know how horrible it feels to be alone. You might understand what they are feeling and could even start to feel sad yourself, even though you are with your friends.
This feeling of sadness might make you go over and ask that child if they would like to come and play with you and your friends. This is empathy in action!
How to teach empathy to a child:
Are you wondering what practical steps you can take to help your child recognise and respond to the feelings and wishes of others? Then below, you’ll find just what you’re looking for!
Lead by example
Your child will only truly begin to understand what empathy is when they have experienced it themselves. So, you must lead by example and be empathetic towards them.
Show them that you understand how they’re feeling: share in their pain and their joy. When your child feels understood, they too will begin to understand the feeling of others. When they know what it’s like to have someone lend them a helping hand, they will be far more likely to do the same for others, and so you will see their empathy bloom.
Let your kids see you showing empathy and kindness towards other people and encourage them to do the same. Tell them how you feel about other people’s situations and why you want to help.
As your child joins you in these little acts of kindness, they’ll learn how rewarding it can be to help others. In seeing the difference they can make to other people, they’ll deepen their own levels of empathy.
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Unpack their emotions and understanding
If your child gets upset when others around them are emotional, then help them to understand what they are feeling and why.
Talk to them about their emotions. Ask them why they think the other person is upset and what might make them feel better.
Encourage them to describe how they themselves are feeling in that moment and why they think they feel that way. If appropriate, decide how best to help the other person and put this into action.
By unpacking your child’s emotional response in this way, you’ll help them relate to others and what they might be going through. They’ll also learn how to understand their own reactions to other people’s emotions and develop ideas about how to help.
Engage their imagination
Take time to discuss what it might be like to be someone else. You could even make this into a game.
Choose a person – this could be a friend, family member or even a stranger you see in the street. Discuss their personalities, character traits, and life experiences.
Next, encourage your child to imagine that they are that person and ask them how they would react in a particular situation. Why would they behave that way, and is this different to how they would behave in their own life? If so, why?
This exercise will help your child to recognise that other people may have a different perspective to their own, along with various feelings and emotional responses. They’ll understand what it means to ‘put themselves in someone else’s shoes,’ helping them develop their empathetic skills.
Describe your own emotions
By telling your child how you feel in various situations, they’ll begin to realise that other people have thoughts and feelings too and that these may be different to their own.
Through describing your emotions, your child will also begin to recognise and understand your associated body language and facial expressions. This will help them identify these signals in other people, making them better able to respond appropriately.
Practise empathy rather than an apology
Asking young kids to apologise when they are unable to empathise is pointless. Often it feels like the most socially appropriate response, but if they can’t relate to what the other person is feeling, then an apology is a meaningless gesture on their part.
A more useful response would be to help your child to focus on the other person involved. You could try saying, “Look how upset Amy is. She’s sad because you snatched the toy she was playing with. Let’s go and give it back to make her feel better.” This also helps the child make the connection between their actions and the other child’s reaction.
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Some final thoughts
I hope this post has given you a better understanding of empathy, how to explain it to your child and support them in becoming more empathetic. But it’s important to remember that empathy is complex, and it can take many years to develop fully. In fact, there are plenty of adults who don’t seem to have mastered it yet!
So be patient. Remember that it’s perfectly natural for young children to be far more concerned about themselves, their own needs, and desires. This is a perfectly normal stage of development. But as they grow, they’ll begin to recognise the needs of those around them and to develop their sense of empathy.
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