7 ways to develop empathy and compassion in children

18 Jan 2016 Posted by: Elizabeth O'Shea

What is empathy?

Empathy is the ability to recognise and understand the distress of others, and to be moved by it. To understand what someone else is feeling or how you would feel if you were in their situation.

So why is empathy in children important?

Children need to develop the quality of empathy to move from being naturally focussed on themselves, to caring for others. Children who are empathic tend to do better in social situations, in school, and in their future careers.

Being helpful and volunteering helps a child feel the warm glow of satisfaction and develops their self-esteem. However – be careful - When you give your child money for helping or being kind it can actually stop the child feeling the built-in pleasure of helping. This is known as ‘reward-undermining’. However an unexpected reward linked to your child helping out can re-enforce kind, caring behaviour.

If you do too much for your child, and smother them with love, it can stop them developing the habit of helping or giving. Sometimes the most loving and giving parents do so much, that the children develop an attitude of expectation and selfishness.

So how can you encourage empathy and compassion in your child?

1. Model the behaviour you want your child to display – help friends and family out, choose a charity and support it. Spend time ringing people you know are going through a hard time. And talk aloud to your child about what you are doing and why it is important.

2. Praise your child whenever they are thoughtful or kind towards others. Make a habit of noticing and commenting on their good deeds and little kindnesses.

3. Help them see another perspective. When your child falls out with a friend, ask them to think how their friend may be thinking. What possible reason could their friend have for arguing with them? Can they put themselves in their friends’ position? You can also help them notice the feelings of others on the TV, films, books, or in real life – make it the start of a discussion.

4. Explore emotional topics. Notice or describe a situation and ask ‘how would you feel if that happened to you?’ You can also do this when your child does something to upset another person. Talk about what childhood is like in different cultures or how it was in history – how does your child think the children felt in the Tudor times or living in Ethiopia?

5. Encourage your child to do things for others. It could be making a get well card for a sick friend, visiting an elderly relative or making a hand-made present.

6. Encourage your child to be helpful with a younger child, a pet, or at school. Perhaps your child could help care for new or less able pupils? Or look out for children who are alone in the playground and invite them to join in their game? Maybe they could play with their younger cousin? Or take on the responsibility of feeding the family cat?

7. Get your child involved in a charity. Look at all the charities around and ask your child to choose which one they would like to support. Could they sort out their old toys and donate them to a shop supporting the charity? Could they save 10% of their pocket money and send it off every two months or so? Can they think of any other way they could help?

I hope there are a few ideas you can use here to help your child become more empathetic and compassionate. 


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