How to help your children develop empathy
Empathy is one of the most important life skills we can give our children. Imagine the power of raising a whole generation of empathy-educated young people, determined to put it into action. That’s the dream of Sarah Mears, Co-Founder of Empathy Lab, who gives us her top tips for developing empathy in young people.
Scientists say empathy can be learnt – we’re not just born with a fixed quantity, and stories are a powerful springboard for building it. That’s why Empathy Day focuses on using books to step into someone else’s shoes – research shows that when we identify with book characters’ feelings, we learn to understand other people better.
Empathy is best learnt young, and families have a critical role to play in helping children develop their empathy muscles.
Top empathy tips
Help children understand empathy
- Empathy is our ability to understand and share someone else’s feelings. It’s our human super-power!
- Children find it easier to grasp empathy’s nature and importance than we sometimes imagine. This Sesame Street video is a great place to start.
Use books to build empathy
- As you read, try focusing more on the characters than the plot and ask gentle questions like ‘How do you think the character felt’?
- Look for stories set in other countries or with characters of different races, religions and experiences. See our Read For Empathy collections for help.
- Books which explore different characters’ perspectives are great for building the skill of perspective-taking. In Polly Ho Yen’s Two Sides, two girls fall out, and we hear each side of the story.
- Make it creative! Play games where children walk in other people’s shoes. See the family activities pack for loads of ideas.
Talk about emotions
- Make it easy for children to identify, name and share emotions. If they understand their own feelings, they’ll be better at understanding other people’s. Encourage open discussion of feelings and use emotion words yourself. Don’t miss the Empathy Charades game on Empathy Day.
Listen to children
- Try to listen deeply, with your full attention, to help children feel their emotions are important and learn to be great listeners themselves. Use the listening switch.
Celebrate acts of empathy
- Praise children for their empathic behaviour as much as for their achievements. Challenge any uncaring behaviour and explore how they could’ve done things differently.
Surround your child with empathic role models
- Help children see empathy in real life and in stories. Try to be a role model yourself, sharing feelings and putting empathy into action. Empathy Day powerfully features authors as empathy role models.
Build children’s empathy habits!
- Help them take action to make a difference, and encourage interest in issues that resonate with them, like helping a lonely neighbour. On Empathy Day, work together to make empathy resolution posters.