Teaching empathy to young children is more than just modeling, playing some educational activities, or explaining other’s perspectives. Groundbreaking discoveries in neuroscience have offered new insight into how we can understand others’ feelings and how to facilitate kids’ empathy development.
What is empathy?
Empathy is the ability to understand, feel, or share others’ feelings. An emotional reaction to what another person feels or would be expected to feel.
There are two main types of empathy: cognitive and emotional.
Cognitive empathy is the ability to understand another person’s perspective and feel their pain. You experience this kind of empathy when you immerse yourself in the experience of another person without losing your own sense of self. It is also called role taking.
Emotional empathy is the vicarious experience of another’s emotional state. It involves experiencing an emotional response to the event either because you sympathize with the person (reactive empathy) or because you feel similar feelings (parallel empathy). Emotional empathy is also known as emotional responsiveness.
Why is empathy important?
Empathy is vital for a cohesive society. It allows for ethical decision making, kind acts and altruism1. A lack of empathy regarding others’ emotions in early childhood is associated with psychopathology2, such as conduct disorder3 and psychopathy, later in life.
The ability to understand the feelings of others is crucial for facilitating social interactions and empathetic behavior toward others. It plays a key role in internalizing rules and in helping those in need, even at one’s own expense.
Empathy in children is associated with more altruistic, cooperative and prosocial behavior4. Empathetic kids have better social skills and emotional intelligence. They show less aggression and better moral reasoning. The ability to empathize is a critical element for a child to develop social-emotional skills.
Moreover, empathetic children display more guilt when they make mistakes and follow rules even without supervision5. They are also more likely to help those who are in distress, and less likely to participate in bullying6.
As an adult, having empathetic concern and taking other’s point of view can increase trust and interpersonal closeness. When adults have empathy for each other, they feel a greater sense of satisfaction in their relationships7.
Mirror neurons, attunement and empathy
In the 1990s, a new class of neurons was discovered in the brains of macaque monkeys. These neurons are activated when the monkeys observe other monkeys or humans executing an object-related hand action such as grabbing an object.
Later on, researchers found that when humans observe someone else’s hand action, the same neural network in their brains is activated as in the performer. Similarly for emotions, when observers see disgust emotion expressed by another person’s facial expression, the same neural structure as the performer is activated8.
The ability to mimic the emotion or sensation of another’s forms the basis of empathy development in children. Even at as early an age as 18 hours old, newborns can mimic the mouth and face movements of the adult they are facing9.
Visual information such as action and facial expressions are critical in detecting or understanding another person’s feelings or state of mind10.
5 Teaching empathy tips – proven by science
1. Be warm, nurturing and responsive
The first step to teaching children empathy is to become a warm, nurturing, and responsive parent11.
Early experiences with a primary caregiver are critical for the development of empathy. Parents who are warm, nurturing, and responsive to their children’s emotional needs promote secure attachment in them and fulfill their needs for warmth, safety and security.
Securely attached children have more empathic concerns for others because their parents have shown concerns for them. These children are better at understanding others’ point of view because their parents have taken their perspective12.
2. Respond with emotional attunement
Researchers have found that mothers who show more emotional attunement to their children in the first year of life are more likely to have children who are empathetic in childhood and adolescence.
When interacting with children you can convey emotional attunement by using attuned, exaggerated, and partially imitative responses that are congruent with their emotional state, and also by utilizing facial expressions and non-verbal cues that are consistent with this state13.
For instance, when your child is in distress and crying, you can respond with “Oh, poor baby” while using facial expressions and a tone of voice that are congruent with the baby’s distress.
3. Coach, not dismiss, emotions
Parents’ language towards their children’s emotions can affect how well they develop empathy.
It has been found that the more parents coach their children on how to label different emotions, the more likely they are to show concern for others. And the more they explain the causes and consequences of emotions, the more likely the children will try to understand the emotions of others14.
Parents can also teach children how to think about issues by imaging how to walk in another person’s shoes. Being able to take in different perspectives is critical in developing cognitive empathy15.
So, make emotion coaching a part of life. Practice empathy with your child in different situation.
On the other hand, if parents constantly dismiss their children’s emotions, they tend to develop callous-unemotional traits and lack empathy for others16.
4. Model empathy directly
Using modeling is a great way to teach children many things, but if we want modeling to be effective in teaching empathy, we have to address some special requirements.
Often, parents believe that a role model is someone who shows their children how to be empathetic to other children when they have mishaps. But this will not be enough to teach empathy.
To model empathy, allow your child to experience it directly. Show kids your empathy for them directly, not indirectly through others.
5. Teach value, not similarities
Empathy helps connect people to others.
People are evolutionarily wired to recognize and respond to differences. We tend to have empathy for those who are similar to us, but fear for those who are different.
This fear is an automatic response to unfamiliar entities that are perceived as threats. This autonomic reaction can only be overcome by cognitive input in the prefrontal cortex (thinking brain).
The idea of teaching children to recognize what they have in common with others in order to encourage empathy is a popular belief, but a dangerous one.
First, the empirical evidence for this theory is limited17. Second, from the similarity perspective, the desire to understand others’ feelings is a product of generalization of self-interest to include others. Teaching children to find similarities in others is still reinforcing the idea that we should have empathy for those who are like us, but only if we can find something that shows we’re alike.
Research shows that we have other reasons for having empathy for those who are different from us. Altruistic motivation is one such reason. We inherently want to nurture and help others.
When we help children develop empathy regardless of differences and similarities, we are teaching them how to value the welfare of others and become truly altruistic. It becomes an integral part of their character education.
There is a general belief that reading literature, discussing other people’s feelings, and explaining different viewpoints are fundamental to empathy education. However, these exercises can only help kids strengthen cognitive empathy. In the end, a child cannot develop empathy if they have never experienced it. None of these activities can replace a nurturing and emotionally attuned parent when it comes to building empathy.
- 1.de Waal FBM. Putting the Altruism Back into Altruism: The Evolution of Empathy. Annu Rev Psychol. Published online January 2008:279-300. doi:10.1146/annurev.psych.59.103006.093625
- 2.Cohen D, Strayer J. Empathy in conduct-disordered and comparison youth. Developmental Psychology. Published online 1996:988-998. doi:10.1037/0012-16220.127.116.118
- 3.Miller PA, Eisenberg N. The relation of empathy to aggressive and externalizing/antisocial behavior. Psychological Bulletin. Published online 1988:324-344. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.103.3.324
- 4.Eisenberg N, Miller PA. The relation of empathy to prosocial and related behaviors. Psychological Bulletin. Published online 1987:91-119. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.101.1.91
- 5.Aksan N, Kochanska G. Conscience in Childhood: Old Questions, New Answers. Developmental Psychology. Published online 2005:506-516. doi:10.1037/0012-1618.104.22.1686
- 6.Nickerson AB, Mele D, Princiotta D. Attachment and empathy as predictors of roles as defenders or outsiders in bullying interactions. Journal of School Psychology. Published online December 2008:687-703. doi:10.1016/j.jsp.2008.06.002
- 7.Cramer D, Jowett S. Perceived empathy, accurate empathy and relationship satisfaction in heterosexual couples. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. Published online April 22, 2010:327-349. doi:10.1177/0265407509348384
- 8.Iacoboni M. Imitation, Empathy, and Mirror Neurons. Annu Rev Psychol. Published online January 2009:653-670. doi:10.1146/annurev.psych.60.110707.163604
- 9.Meltzoff AN. Imitation as a Mechanism of Social Cognition: Origins of Empathy, Theory of Mind, and the Representation of Action. In: Blackwell Handbook of Childhood Cognitive Development. Blackwell Publishers Ltd; :6-25. doi:10.1002/9780470996652.ch1
- 10.Gallese V, Eagle MN, Migone P. Intentional Attunement: Mirror Neurons and the Neural Underpinnings of Interpersonal Relations. J Am Psychoanal Assoc. Published online March 2007:131-175. doi:10.1177/00030651070550010601
- 11.Zhou Q, Eisenberg N, Losoya SH, et al. The Relations of Parental Warmth and Positive Expressiveness to Children’s Empathy-Related Responding and Social Functioning: A Longitudinal Study. Child Development. Published online May 2002:893-915. doi:10.1111/1467-8624.00446
- 12.Mikulincer M, Gillath O, Halevy V, Avihou N, Avidan S, Eshkoli N. Attachment theory and rections to others’ needs: Evidence that activiation of the sense of attachment security promotes empathic responses. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Published online 2001:1205-1224. doi:10.1037/0022-3522.214.171.1245
- 13.Gergely G, Watson JS. Early socio–emotional development: Contingency perception and the social-biofeedback model. In: Early Social Cognition: Understanding Others in the First Months of Life. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers; 1999:101–136.
- 14.Garner PW. Child and family correlates of toddlers’ emotional and behavioral responses to a mishap. Infant Ment Health J. Published online November 2003:580-596. doi:10.1002/imhj.10076
- 15.Wellman HM, Cross D, Watson J. Meta-Analysis of Theory-of-Mind Development: The Truth about False Belief. Child Development. Published online May 2001:655-684. doi:10.1111/1467-8624.00304
- 16.Johnson AM, Hawes DJ, Eisenberg N, Kohlhoff J, Dudeney J. Emotion socialization and child conduct problems: A comprehensive review and meta-analysis. Clinical Psychology Review. Published online June 2017:65-80. doi:10.1016/j.cpr.2017.04.001
- 17.Batson CD, Lishner DA, Cook J, Sawyer S. Similarity and Nurturance: Two Possible Sources of Empathy for Strangers. Basic and Applied Social Psychology. Published online March 2005:15-25. doi:10.1207/s15324834basp2701_2