Health & Psychology Helping children to learn empathy

“I feel how you feel…” The importance of helping your children to develop empathy

People who understand how to watch, listen, and observe the actions and emotions of those around them are often the most successful in life. A conscious alignment of one’s self with others starts with the development of empathy in the early years. Early theorists suggested that young children were too egocentric, or otherwise not cognitively able, to experience empathy (Freud 1958; Piaget 1965). However, a multitude of studies have provided evidence that very young children are, in fact, capable of displaying a variety of rather sophisticated empathy related behaviours (Zahn-Waxler et al. 1979; Zahn-Waxler et al. 1992a; Zahn-Waxler et al. 1992b).

Little 7-year-old Johnny is playing in the park with his friends from school, laughing and joking around. His mother walks over and says to Johnny. “You see this kid there, his name is Sam, he is the son of my friend and he is quite shy and alone”. Johnny turns around to his friends and says “hey guys I’m off, see you later”. He turns around, picks up the spare football and goes over to Sam and quietly asks him if he wants to kick a ball. Sam smiles, gets down from where he was sitting alone and they start kicking the ball back and forth.

There was no prompting from the parent’s side, no further information; there was some sort of internal understanding on Johnny’s side on what it means to be shy and alone and what that feels like. Not only had he left his group of friends for this, what was remarkable was that he went from being loud and boisterous, to approaching Sam in a soft and calm manner, mirroring Sam’s demeanour.


Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another being is experiencing from within the other being’s frame of reference, i.e., the capacity to place oneself in another’s position. Empathy moves us to share in another’s pain, to really see the world through their eyes. When we do, it very often changes the kind of decisions and actions we take. There are many definitions for empathy which encompass a broad range of emotional states. Types of empathy include cognitive empathy, emotional empathy, and somatic empathy. Empathy is essential for motivating prosocial behaviour toward others, including complying with social rules and engaging in altruistic behaviour. Empathy also facilitates the development of social competence and enhances the quality of meaningful relationships.

The developmental time line

The ability to empathise begins at an early age, with infants as young as 18 hours showing some responsiveness to other infants’ distress. Right around their first birthday, children start “social referencing”, looking to their caregivers for information. They learn that facial expressions speak for different emotions. And at around 18 months, children exhibit the ultimate precursor to empathy — understanding that other people have feelings different from our own. During the second year of life, toddler’s responses to others’ distress typically transform from an overwhelming personal distress reaction to a more “others” oriented empathic reaction.

At the same time, toddlers become capable of rather sophisticated helping behaviours. However, don’t forget that egocentrism is normal for a toddler. They can’t be empathetic and unselfish all the time. As children reach the preschool years (4-5 years), significant developments occur in cognitive empathy, or theory of mind abilities, and 5-6 year olds have the ability to discuss feelings. There is evidence to suggest that these early dispositions toward empathy and prosocial behaviour may be consistent and stable over time.

Contributions to Empathy

The ability to typically develops early and rapidly. But what factors facilitate this development? There are within-child contributions such as genetics, neural development, and temperament, as well as socialisation factors including facial mimicry and imitation, parenting, and parent-child relationships. If one or more of these factors function atypically, they may contribute to empathy deficits. The “disorders of empathy” (e.g. autism, psychopathy, schizoid personality, etc.) highlight the importance of the ability to empathise by illustrating some of the consequences to disrupted empathy development.

Individuals with psychopathy show less physiological responsiveness to distress and have deficits in their ability to recognise facial affect, particularly fear. There has been recent supportive evidence from neuroscience studies, which shows dysfunction in empathy related brain areas, particularly areas of the limbic and Para limbic system (emotion areas), among psychopathic individuals (Kiehl 2006; Shirtcliff et al. 2009).

If psychopaths have intact cognitive empathy, but dysfunctional emotional empathy, it suggests that the ability to feel another’s pain is the central component to motivating prosocial behaviour and minimising antisocial behaviour. It also suggests that the ability to cognitively understand another’s perspective can be socially dangerous in the absence of an emotional empathic connection with the other. From a broader perspective, studies show that cognitive empathy is more impaired in individuals with autism while emotional empathy is more impaired in individuals with psychopathy. This suggests that the cognitive and emotional components of empathy can develop unequally, and that both are necessary in promoting healthy social functioning.

Genetic Influences

There is equally an importance of genetic influences, in concert with environmental factors, on the development of empathy. Other temperamental factors, such as reactivity, or the degree to which one physiologically responds to stimuli in their environment, has also been associated with empathy. For example, infants who showed relatively low levels of motor and affective responses to novel sensory stimuli at four months, were found to respond less empathically to a stranger simulating distress at age two (Young et al.1999). The association between low reactivity to sensory stimuli in infancy and others’ distress in toddlerhood may be an early sign of under arousal that may lead to later callousness and antisocial behaviour.

Equally parenting itself is found to influence the early development of empathy. One aspect of parent-child interaction that is particularly relevant to the study of empathy development is the level of synchrony between parent and child. Synchrony is the temporal matching of behaviour between mother/father and child. Studies show that mother-infant synchrony measured in the first year of life (3 to 9 months) is directly associated with empathy level in childhood and at 6 and 13 years of age.


Interestingly, synchrony was associated with later empathy, but not moral cognition. This suggests that it may be more important for the emotional, rather than cognitive, aspects of empathy. In addition, parents who match their infants’ affect (i.e. Affective synchrony) during interaction may provide children with two important experiences. On the one hand, it may lead children to feel that another, the parent, can feel what they feel. On the other hand, it may provide children with an understanding that their own emotionally motivated actions can influence another.

Some children seem to naturally develop empathy without the parents “consciously” teaching this. However, if neurologically all is intact, then empathy can be helped along the way through conscious teachings.

Teaching Empathy

Treat children as individuals with minds of their own

Talk to them about the ways that our feelings influence our behaviour. Talk to your children about emotional and mental states, and discuss the ways that our beliefs, desires, and emotions motivate behaviour. 5-6 year olds have the ability to discuss feelings. As five- and six-year-olds become more aware of their own emotions, they begin to recognise them in others. Therefore, their emotional vocabulary expands.

Model empathy.

Use opportunities to model, and induce, sympathetic feelings for others. By pointing out situations that call for empathy parents can generate sympathetic responses for their kids. This can be done on the street, in a book, in a movie. Take the situation where little Ben has splashed paint all over his brothers drawing. A parent who says “you must tell him that you’re sorry” is forcing a child to say sorry without understanding why or how it relates to his brother’s feelings, he isn’t really exhibiting or learning empathic behaviour.

Instead, it is better to encourage Ben’s participation in the process by asking: “How do you think your brother is feeling? What might you do to help him?” For younger kids it is harder to think of what the “other” is feeling, so you can ask them “what does it feel like when your brother ruins your drawing”, they might answer “sad”. You then ask “so how to you think your brother feels now?”

Make kids aware of the similarities they share with others.

The more we can humanise the victims of distress or tragedy the better kids will be able to respond with empathy. Research shows kids are more likely to feel empathy for those who are familiar or similar to them. So draw inferences on similarities.

Empathy involves perspective taking skills.

What is the world like from another’s point of view? Again in everyday life, movies, or books ask what do the characters think, believe, feel or want and how do we know that? This is opening up the understanding of how others minds work, growing the skill of theory of mind. By preschool age (4-5 years), children are generally capable of taking another’s perspective. The ability to understand others’ perspectives is integral for fully and successfully identifying with another’s experience.

Theory of mind helps to transform the early developing affective experience of empathy to a more sympathetic, others focused, experience by more fully attaching one’s empathic feelings to a conceptualisation of the other’s experience rather than one’s own. The increase in the ability to identify with another’s experience also allows children to engage in more effective helping strategies, as they are presumably viewing the situation more accurately.

Make a face.

Studies show that simply copying a facial expression can make us feel the associated emotion. When researchers have asked people to imitate certain facial expressions, they detected changes in brain activity that are characteristic of the corresponding emotions. So make your child mimic a facial expression. We increase our empathic powers by imitating the facial expressions of people we want to empathise with.

More oxytocin, “the bonding hormone”, can help better decode emotional meaning in facial expressions.

If research is correct then maybe children will find it easier to understand the emotional signals of others if they have plenty of their own oxytocin. Oxytocin is known to be released during breastfeeding as well as hugging and massage.

Reassessment of the Milgram Experiments –Moral Disengagement.

Research shows us indefinitely that average well-adjusted human beings can be persuaded to harm others, even torture them. Only as long as the reasoning is correct. For instance by an authoritative figure. These people in the experiments were not psychopaths. They were ordinary people exposed to social pressure from a plausible authority figure. With the right rationalisations, otherwise decent people can disengage their moral responses. This is equal for kids. So make kids aware of this phenomenon, bring awareness so that they can better make decisions in certain situations.

Express your feelings openly.

Often parents feel that they should not “burden” their children with their feelings or their woes. However, this is a great learning lesson for your children. If you are having a hard day, tell them. Not only might their reactions amaze you. Also, your ability to verbalise a range of emotions will help children recognise and respond to the emotions of others. They will also learn from the emotional language you use. You can expand this by labelling the intensity of the feeling (e.g. 1 to 10), to teach them that there is a range of intensity to “sad”, “angry” etc.

Emotional vocabulary is key.

Society has increasingly been expressing concern over the social and emotional growth of children. This has even sometimes been said to be replacing the traditional emphasis placed on the cognitive and physical development of children. Psychological studies into behavioural disorders, learning difficulties and other aspects of normal development have shown Emotional Literacy to be important in promoting happiness and self-satisfaction. It is our uneducated emotions that move us, hold us back, and lead us astray. First and last, it is our emotions that determine our choice of profession, partner, and politics. It also governs our relation to money and religion.

Nothing can make us feel more alive, or more human, than our emotions, or hurt us more. Yet many people lumber through life without giving full consideration to their emotions. Partly this is because our culture does not encourage it. It is also because it requires unusual strength to gaze into the abyss of our deepest feelings. As parents it is our duty to push past our own fears and open up. This allows us to fully, emotionally educate our children. Emotional literacy is the building block for empathy as well as emotional regulation.

Monitor and guide media use.

Research leaves no doubt that kids who are exposed to violent media and games act more violently (and less empathically) than those who are not exposed to those games and media. A 14-year-old boy who spends all weekend and most nights shooting and stabbing for entertainment, even if it is in the virtual world, is at far higher risk of acting violently in the real world. And the research is clear. Such media objectifies others, and desensitises our kids, often the line between fiction and reality is blurred, effectively muting empathy.


To live in a world without empathy is to live in a world that is ego-centric, dog-eat-dog, focused on me. A world without empathy is a world where people don’t consider how things look from another person’s viewpoint. A place where other’s feelings, perceptions, intentions, and motives don’t matter. Other problems arise in a loveless world. It would be impossible to trust anyone else as trust is built on leaps of faith and human compassion. We would have no way to experience the safety of others unless they exactly conformed to our expectations. Each of us would be self-appointed emperors of our own little world.

Inevitably, it would be a rather lonely world. However, a world of empathy is one where people feel safe, secure, and connected. It’s a place where we can trust that people are concerned for our needs and interests. It’s a world where people see into our hearts, and see through our eyes. A world with empathy is a world where people understand and care. We as parents are armed with the abilities to help instil this in our children. Unless there is an underlying neurological difficulty we can go a long way to making sure we raise empathetic children.

About the Author:

Laurence van Hanswijck de Jonge, MSc, PhD, is a Developmental Neuropsychologist and Coach who provides educational and neuropsychological assessments for English speaking children between the ages of 3 and 18. Her practice is rooted in Positive Psychology and her belief in the importance of letting our children flourish through building on their innate strengths. She is certified by the University of Pennsylvania, USA,  to run the Cognitive Behaviour Therapy based resilience building programme for children. She is also a CogMed coach. This is an evidence-based Working Memory Training program (computer-based) which sustainably improves attention by training working memory.


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