Teaching empathy: Evidence-based tips for fostering empathy in children
© 2009 - 2014 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved
Teaching empathy? This might sound strange if you think of empathy as a talent--something we either have or lack.
But research also suggests that
empathy is a complex phenomenon
involving several component skills:
• A sense of self-awareness and the ability to distinguish one’s own feelings from the feelings of others.
• Taking another person’s perspective (or, alternatively, “putting oneself in another person’s shoes”).
• Being able to regulate one’s own emotional responses.
These skills might seem like standard-issue, grown-up social skills, and indeed they are.
However, even adults can have trouble with these abilities. For
instance, some adults would shrink from offering a wounded person first
aid, not because they are callous but because they have trouble coping
with their own emotional reactions to the other person’s plight.
So I don’t think of empathy as something you either have or lack.
There are degrees of empathy, and, with practice and an understanding
of psychology, we can probably develop stronger empathic skills.
Here are some tips for teaching empathy--tips inspired by scientific research.
Teaching empathy tip #1: Address your child’s own needs, and teach him how to “bounce back” from distress
Studies suggest that kids are more likely to develop a strong sense
of empathy when their own emotional needs are being met at home (Barnett
When kids have secure attachment relationships (so that they know
they can count on their caregivers for emotional and physical support)
they are more likely to show sympathy and offer help to other kids in
distress (Waters et al 1979; Kestenbaum et al 1989).
Other research indicates that kids are more likely to show
empathic concern for others if they have parents who help them cope with
negative emotions in a sympathetic, problem-solving-oriented way. For
references, see this article on the
case for teaching empathy.
Teaching empathy tip #2: Be a “mind-minded” parent
Treat your child as an individual with a mind of her own, and talk
to her about the ways that our feelings influence our behavior
Observational studies reveal a link between parenting and “theory
of mind”—i.e., what kids understand about the goals, desires, and
beliefs of other people.
Parents who are “mind-minded” treat their offspring (no matter
how young) as individuals with minds of their own. They also talk to
their children about emotional and mental states, and discuss the ways
that our beliefs, desires, and emotions motivate behavior. For more
information about these studies—and an experiment illustrating the
importance of “mental state talk”—see this article on
Teaching empathy tip #3: Seize everyday opportunities to model—and induce—sympathetic feelings for other people
By modeling empathic behavior--and pointing out situations that call
for empathy—parents can generate sympathetic responses in their kids.
For example, if you and your child see someone being victimized (in real
life, on TV, or in a book), talk with your child about how that person
must feel (Pizarro and Salovey 2002).
Teaching empathy tip #4: Help kids discover what they have in common with other people
Experiments suggest that kids are more likely to feel empathy for
individuals who are familiar and/or similar to them (e.g., Zahn-Waxler
et al 1984; Smith 1988). Kids may also find it easier to empathize with
people who they’ve shared unpleasant experiences with (Murphy 1937).
So it’s probably helpful to make kids aware of the similarities
they may share with other people. The more we can humanize the victims
of distress or tragedy, the better kids will be able to respond with
Teaching empathy tip #5: Teach kids about the hot-cold empathy gap
Have you ever noticed how hard it is to appreciate the power of a
food craving when you aren’t hungry? This is what researchers call the
“hot-cold empathy gap,”
and it appears to be a universal problem. When people are feeling cool
and collected, they underestimate how compelling emotionally or
physiologically “hot” states—like hunger—can be.
Conversely, people in the grip of “hot” states often
underestimate how much their current perceptions are influenced by their
The hot-cold empathy gap leads to mistakes in judgment and
failures of empathy. But once we understand how the hot-cold empathy gap
works, we can use it to teach empathy.
For example, we can use moments of discomfort as opportunities to induce empathy for others:
• Did your child get the brush-off from the school snob? You
might start a conversation about the experiences of other victims…and
note how these episodes can help us avoid acting like snobs ourselves.
• Coping with a miserable family car trip? Ask kids to imagine
how their ancestors felt during arduous, dusty, treks in horse-powered
carts and wagons.
We might also help kids teaching them about the hot-cold empathy gap.
For instance, kids may have unrealistic attitudes about their
ability to control their urges and emotions—and keep making mistakes as a
Research on the empathy gap suggests that trying to resist
temptation may be less effective than simply avoiding situations that
give rise to temptation.
So some kids need to learn that self-control isn’t just about
being strong. It’s also about being smart. If you need to get your
homework done, keep distractions—like that cell phone—out of sight. If
your peers are pressuring you act to uncharitably towards “uncool” kids,
maybe you should spend your time with other, more pleasant, people.
Teaching empathy tip #6: Help kids explore other roles and perspectives
As noted in the introduction, empathy involves perspective-taking.
What is the world like when experienced from another person’s point of
Stories—from books or television—are opportunities for kids to
practice perspective-taking skills. What do the characters think,
believe, want, or feel? And how do we know it?
When families discuss these questions, kids may learn a lot about
the way other people’s minds work (Dunn et al 2001). In one experimental study, 110 school kids (aged 7 years) were enrolled in a program of reading. Some students were randomly assigned to engage in conversations about the emotional content of the stories they read. Others were asked only to produce drawings about the stories. After two months, the kids in the conversation group showed greater advances in emotion comprehension, theory of mind, and empathy, and the positive outcomes "remained stable for 6 months" (Ornaghi et al 2014).
Other research suggests you don't even have to talk to boost your empathic skills, not if the material you read is sufficiently stimulating. When David Kidd and Emanuele Castano (2013) assigned young adults to read literary fiction -- novels that challenged readers to analyze the psychology of characters -- participants showed temporary improvements in their ability to "read" the minds of others.
And don’t dismiss the usefulness of role-playing games. In an elaborate role-playing trial, researchers asked young, healthy medical students to simulate the
difficulties of old age. For example, students wore goggles covered with
transparent tape to simulate the effects of cataracts, and heavy rubber gloves to experience poor motor control. After the
experiment, the students showed greater empathy towards the elderly
(Varkey et al 2006).
Teaching empathy tip #7: Show kids how to “make a face” while they try to imagine how someone else feels.
Suppose I tell you to make a sad face. It’s just play acting, right?
Experiments show that simply “going through the motions” of
making a facial expression can make us experience the associated
And it’s not “just our imagination” (whatever that phrase means).
When researchers have asked people to imitate certain facial
expressions, they have detected changes in brain activity that are
characteristic of the corresponding emotions. People also experience
changes in heart rate, skin conductance, body temperature (for a concise
summary, see Decety and Jackson 2004).
So it seems likely that we can “boost” our empathic powers by
imitating the facial expressions of people we want to empathize with.
Pretty cool, huh? And it’s not a new idea. As neuroscientists
Jean Decety and Philip L. Jackson point out, this method was suggested
by Edgar Allen Poe in his short story the Purloined Letter.
Teaching empathy tip #8: Help kids develop a sense of morality that depends on internal self-control, not on rewards or punishments
Kids are capable of being spontaneously helpful and sympathetic. But
experimental studies have shown that kids become less likely to
help others if they are given material rewards for doing so.
Other research has shown that kids are more likely to develop an internal sense of right and wrong if they are raised with
, inductive discipline--an approach that emphasizes rational
explanations and moral consequences, not arbitrary rules and
For instance, kids are more likely to internalize moral
principles when their parents talk to them about how wrong-doing affects
other people--inducing empathy and feelings of guilt (Hoffman and
Teaching empathy tip #9: Teach (older) kids about mechanisms of moral disengagement
Research has demonstrated that average, well-adjusted people can be
persuaded to harm others—even torture them—as long as they are provided
with the right rationale.
In a famous series of experiments developed by Stanley Milgram of
Yale University, subjects were told that they were participating in a
“learning experiment” that required them to administer painful electric
shocks to another person (Milgram 1963).
The “experiment” was a fake—dressed up with plausible props and
an actor who pretended to be in pain after the study participants
pressed a button. But the participants were fooled and—urged on by an
authoritative man in a white lab coat—they dutifully administered shocks
to the screaming “victim.” In fact, almost 65% of participants
continued to press the button even after the “victim” had appeared to
fall unconscious (Milgram 1963).
These people weren’t psychopaths. They were ordinary people
exposed to social pressure from a plausible authority figure. With the
right rationalizations, otherwise decent people can disengage their
moral responses. And it’s not just an adult phenomenon. Kids can do it,
I think it’s a good idea for older kids to learn about Milgram’s
research and about the kinds of rationalizations that people use to
excuse callous or cruel behavior. For more information, check out this
mechanisms of moral disengagement.
Teaching empathy tip #10: Inspire good
feelings (and boost oxytocin levels) through pleasant social
interactions and physical affection
An interesting experiment suggests that higher levels of oxytocin can
help people better “decode” the emotional meanings of facial
expressions. Researchers had 30 young adult males inhale oxytocin (the
“cuddle” hormone) and then examine photographs of other people’s eyes.
Compared to men given a placebo, the oxytocin men were better at
interpreting the emotions of the people in the photographs (Domes et al
So perhaps kids will find it easier to understand the emotional
signals of others if they are well-supplied with their own,
naturally-produced oxytocin. Oxytocin is released when people experience
pleasant touching (like hugs and massage). It’s also produced when
people engage in pleasant social interactions (Uvnäs-Moberg 2003).
Other helpful ideas for teaching empathy
For related information, check out these
research-inspired social skills activities for children and teenagers.
References: Tips for teaching empathy
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Hoffman ML and Saltzein HD. 1967. Parental discipline and the
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This article about teaching empathy is based on research published before February 2014.
Content last modified 1/14.