Tips for helping children become empathetic

Children are by nature egocentric – in other words, their world revolves around them. They are particularly tuned into what they want and what they believe they need, and for the first years of their lives parents tend to most of their desires.

Grandparents and parents alike fawn, to various degrees, over the baby and then the toddler. He actually is the center of attention, so it is easy to see how children can begin to believe that their world revolves around them. And suddenly, we have a 4 or 5 year old who has difficulty understanding how others feel or realizing that other people are important, too. Not surprising, is it?

But we all hope to raise children who are empathetic and caring individuals. So how does a child learn to think about another person’s feelings and care about other people’s needs and situations? The parents of my preschool and kindergarten students often asked me that question, so I’ll fill you in on my answers to them.

Be a role model

Children learn so very much by watching the important adults in their lives. When they see their parents treating others kindly and with consideration, they learn that this is how people behave.

Children also learn how to show empathy and caring by watching you. If they watch you listen to a friend who seems distressed and watch you put an arm around the friend’s shoulder, they are learning how to console a friend who is upset. When a child sees an adult express concern by asking questions such as: “How are you feeling?” or “What can I do to help?” they learn specific ways to show that they care. Discuss your behavior with your child. Explain when and why you are offering help or expressing concern. A simple explanation will do the trick, so details about personal situations is not necessary. But a deliberate conversation highlighting the importance of caring about a friend and showing that you care helps children understand what caring is all about.

In addition, when children observe their parents being empathetic, they get the message that this personality trait is valued and important. So when a parent asks his child to show someone that he cares, the child knows that this is behavior his parents adhere themselves.

Step in to guide your child

Be specific when directing your child to be empathetic. Let him know when someone (a friend or relative) is feeling sad and discuss what he can do to help this person feel better. Brainstorm some ideas that may prove helpful. The conversation alone promotes empathy and caring in a child. Also, let your child know that sometimes simply expressing concern goes a long way to helping someone feel less upset.

Talk about feelings

Talking about feelings helps children understand feelings and also lets them know that it is okay to have a variety of feelings and to talk about them. Children often lump feelings into two categories – good (happy) or bad (sad). This is not helpful, for several reasons.
First, feelings are not good or bad. It may be more accurate to describe feelings as appropriate or inappropriate. Feeling sad when you are upset is appropriate, not bad. Feeling happy when someone else is hurt is inappropriate. Secondly, there are many more feelings that just “happy” or “sad.”

Use a variety of words to describe your feelings. Are you concerned, distressed, delighted, surprised, disappointed, fearful, lonely, or nervous? Use a variety of feelings words to help your child understand how he is feeling, also.

Looking at Kindergarten worksheets that focus on feelings and emotions can be a wonderful introduction to talking about feelings and helping your child understand their importance. When he can more accurately describe his feelings, he will also be able to more completely understand how another person is feeling.

Have high expectations

I believe that children rise to the occasion, so to speak. When we have high, yet attainable, expectations, children strive to fulfill them. If you observe your child being unkind or uncaring, let him know immediately that this response is not acceptable. He’ll soon understand your expectations. And when you observe your child acting with empathy, let him know that his actions are appreciated. When your child realizes that you believe he is a caring friend, he will see himself in that way also.

For information on helping your child develop important school-readiness skills, please visit Renee at for a kindergarten readiness test and free kindergarten worksheets.

Renee Abramovitz is a a former preschool and kindergarten teacher who retired in 2008 to become a “full-time grandma” to her four beautiful grandsons. She is passionate about the idea that all parents are their child’s first and most important teacher and strives to give parents the tools and confidence they need to successfully work with their children at home.

Renee shares tips for working with young children at where she offers a free kindergarten readiness test parents can take to assess their child’s readiness to start school plus hundreds upon hundreds of free kindergarten worksheets for parents to use at home with their children.

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1 Comment

  • Cascia Talbert , November 22, 2011

    I talk openly with my kids about feelings but I need to make sure I am a good role model too. Thanks for sharing these tips!

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