MomsGetReal Contributor Tonia Caselman

Empathy is the ability to (1) read and understand another’s emotional cues, (2) personally experience some of that person’s feelings, and (3) express that understanding verbally and/or behaviorally. It is much more than simply feeling sorry for someone; it is the sharing of all kinds of emotions. In reading and sharing the emotions of others actions are coordinated so that the group can work together more effectively. Empathy is also critical for creating and maintaining healthy relationships. Those with high levels of empathy have more friends, better marriages and more successful work relationships than those with lower levels of empathy. In fact, empathy is listed as one of the main components of emotional intelligence!

Research reveals several aspects of children’s empathy development including the following important points:

(1)   Kids are more likely to develop empathy when their own emotional needs are being met.

(2)   Kids are more likely to show empathy towards others if they are able to cope with their own negative emotions.

(3)   Kids are more likely to feel empathy for individuals who are familiar and/or similar to them.

Based on research then, parents can help children develop empathy in several ways:

  • Be warm and attentive towards your child’s emotions and needs. Spend time nurturing your child and validating her/his feelings.
  • Name feelings words for your child as s/he experiences them. For example, “I know that you are disappointed,” or “You’re so excited about that!”
  • Help your child regulate her/his negative emotions. Instead of punishment, help her/him develop good coping and problem-solving skills.
  • Point out similarities between your child and others. For example, “You and ___ both like to play soccer,” or “You and ___ both seem to hate broccoli,” etc.
  • Engage your child in role-playing games where s/he has to take on the perceptions of others.
  • Be people-watchers with your child. Take turns trying to guess others’ feelings based on their facial expressions and body language.
  • Model empathic behavior. Let your child know that you share others’ feelings and do thoughtful things for them. Include your child as much as possible when you do thoughtful things for others. For example, have her/him sign Get Well/Birthday/Anniversary cards, do volunteer work with you, etc.
  • Point out situations that call for empathy. For example, if you and your child see someone being victimized (in real life, on TV, or in a book, etc.), talk with your child about how that person must feel.
  • Encourage an older child to become a tutor for a younger child. Tutors often must understand the needs and feelings of those they tutor.
  • When doing book reports or choosing movies, encourage your child to select biographies of empathic persons such as Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Oscar Schindler, Mahatma Ghandi, etc.

Tonia Caselman, PhD, LCSW is an associate professor of social work at the University of Ok and the co-owner of Castlewell Therapeutic Play, a website with downloadable games that promote children’s social/emotional development. She is also the author and co-author of several books including Empathy: The Social Emotion, Impulse Control, Boundaries and Empowering Children of Incarcerated Parents. Be sure to visit her website for a free downloadable game at