Teaching empathy: Evidence-based tips for fostering empathy in children

© 2009 - 2017 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

Teaching empathy? That might sound strange if you think of empathy as an innate, fixed trait -- a talent that some people are born with, and others lack.

But empathy isn't an all or nothing proposition. It isn't something that unfolds automatically, in every situation. It isn't even a single ability or skill.

As Jean Decety and Jason Cowell have argued (2014), the word "empathy" has become a "catch-all" term for three distinct processes:

  1. Emotional sharing (also called "emotional contagion"), which occurs when we experience feelings of distress as a result of observing distress in another individual
  2. Empathic concern, which is the motivation to care for individuals who are vulnerable or distressed, and
  3. Perspective-taking, the "ability to consciously put oneself in the mind of another individual and imagine what that person is thinking or feeling." 

When we speak in everyday terms of someone being "very empathic," or showing "low empathy," we're probably guilty of mixing up several distinct concepts.

Certainly, some individuals score high in all three areas, and others (a very small portion of the population) may test poorly across the board. But it's common for people to experience these phenomena in varying degrees -- and to change over time.

For instance, many young children show high levels of emotional sharing; demonstrate strong, but more limited, evidence of empathic concern; and struggle with certain types of perspective-taking.

As they get older, their perspective-taking skills improve, especially when we provide them with opportunities to practice.

They learn social norms about when and how show to empathic concern. They also learn about their own emotional responses.

These experiences might lead to enhanced empathy for others, or the reverse. Children may learn to show more responsiveness and caring, or less. It depends on the content of their lessons.

  • Were they taught that empathy often requires an open-mind, and an effort to learn how differently others experience the world?  
  • Did they learn to shut out unpleasant feelings by retreating from people in distress? Or did they learn how to control their personal reactions so they can respond with sympathy and help?
  • Did they learn practical, concrete actions to take when someone is in trouble?
  • Did they learn that empathy is to be reserved for a select few -- or for individuals from every walk of life?

So empathy isn't something you either have or lack, and it isn't something that develops automatically, without input from the environment.

There are different facets and degrees of empathy, and the way we socialize children matters.  

Here are some tips for teaching empathy--tips inspired by scientific research.

Teaching empathy tip #1: Provide children with the support they need to develop strong self-regulation skills

Feeling someone else's pain is unpleasant, so it shouldn't surprise us if a child's first impulse is to shrink away. Children are more likely to overcome this impulse when they feel secure, and have strong self-regulation skills.

For instance, when children have secure attachment relationships with their caregivers, they know they can count on their caregivers for emotional and physical support. And these children are more likely to sympathize and offer help to people in distress (Waters et al 1979; Kestenbaum et al 1989; Barnett 1987). 

In addition, children who are better at regulating their negative emotions tend to show greater empathic concern for others (Song et al 2017).

Thus, we can foster empathy by being "emotion coaches." That means acknowledging (rather than dismissing) our children's negative feelings, and engaging them in conversation about the causes and effects of emotions. It also means helping kids find constructive ways to handle their bad moods.

While emotion coaching has helped kids of all ages, younger children who struggle with negative emotions may benefit the most (Johnson et al 2017). In addition, there is evidence that young children develop better perspective-taking skills when we talk to them about mental states -- like beliefs, desires, and goals. 

So if you have a toddler, it isn't too early to start thinking about your role as a coach. In one experiment, parents who were encouraged to increase their coaching efforts produced immediate, positive effects. Preschoolers showed improvements in their ability to handle frustration (Loop and Roskam 2016). 

Read more in this article about the case for teaching empathy.

Teaching empathy tip #2: Seize everyday opportunities to model—and induce—sympathetic feelings for other people

If you observe someone in distress (in real life, on TV, or in a book), talk with your child about how that person must feel (Pizarro and Salovey 2002). Even a very brief conversation might have an effect.

For example, in an experiment on Dutch school children (age 8-13 years), Jellie Sierksma and her colleagues presented kids with some hypothetical scenarios about school.

It's your classmate's turn to stay late and clean up the classroom. But she wants to go home as soon as possible because her mother is quite ill. She asks you to help her. Would you do it?

In one scenario, the students were told to imagine that the girl was one of their friends. In another scenario, they were told the girl was not one of their friends.

The distinction mattered. Children expressed less willingness to help when the girl wasn't depicted as a friend.

But the results changed when researchers added an extra step to the procedure. Instead of immediately asking children if they would help, the experimenters first asked them to think about the girl, and rate how sad or upset she was likely to be.

After rating emotions, the children showed no bias in favor of the friend. They were equally likely to say they would help the girl, whether she was a friend or not (Sierksma et al 2015). The extra reminder was enough to change children's judgments.

Teaching empathy tip #3: Help kids discover what they have in common with other people

Adults tend to feel greater empathy for an individual when they perceive the individual to be similar to them. They also find it easier to empathize with someone who is familiar. Research suggests that children have similar biases (e.g., Zahn-Waxler et al 1984; Smith 1988). 

As a result, one of the best ways to encourage empathy is to make children conscious of what they have in common with others. Another is to get out and meet people from different backgrounds, and learn about what life is like in far away places. 

Conversations are helpful, but it's worth remembering that kids are heavily influenced by what we actually do, and less by what we say. Decades of research indicates that one of the biggest predictors of racial prejudice -- and a failure to empathize with members of other groups -- is having little or no contact with people who aren't like you.

Studies also suggest that schools boost empathy in students when they foster multiculturalism -- an inclusive, warm attitude about cultural diversity. Moreover, this enhanced empathy is linked with increased happiness and scholastic achievement (Le et al 2009; Chang and Le 2011).

Teaching empathy tip #4: Foster cognitive empathy through literature and role-playing

Teaching empathy: Why "feeling someone else's pain" isn't the whole story

When we hear the word empathy, we often focus on "emotion sharing." This ability,  also called "affective empathy," seems like empathy is its most primal, compelling form.

But it comes with a cost. As noted in the introduction, emotion sharing can make us want to back away, especially when we encounter someone in pain or distress.

And even if we resist this impulse, our own emotions can distract us from accurately judging what a victim really needs.

Thus, having affective empathy isn't enough. To be good helpers, we also need cognitive empathy -- the ability to take another person's perspective, and imagine what actions might make that person feel better. The process is more dispassionate and cerebral, and less stressful. It's also leads to more accurate judgments.

In brain scan studies, individuals who score high in cognitive empathy tend to experience less stress reactivity when they witness distress in others. And they are actually better at responding in helpful ways (e.g., Ho et al 2014).

So how do we foster cognitive empathy? 

Fictional stories and real-life narratives offer excellent opportunities for teaching empathy and sharpening a child's perspective-taking skills. What do the characters think, believe, want, or feel? And how do we know it? When we actively 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 reading program. 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 that role-playing is useful. 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 #5: Foster cognitive empathy through compassion training

Literature and role-playing can provide children with insights into other minds and other perspectives. But what about those feelings of personal distress? How do we keep affective empathy from overwhelming us? Research suggests that certain meditation practices -- mindfulness meditation and compassion meditation -- may be helpful.

For example, in studies of compassion training, participants "visualize their own past suffering, and relate to it with feelings of warmth and care" (Klimecki et al 2014).

To maintain this focus, they repeat phrases like "may I be sheltered by compassion," "may I be safe," and " may I be free from this suffering." Then participants repeat the exercise, but with other individuals as the targets for compassion. They start by imagining a close loved one, and then extend their compassionate wishes to a series of others -- a neutral person, an difficult person, and humanity in general (Leiberg et al 2011; Klimecki et al 2014).

For adults, a single day of training has been enough to yield differences in brain activity and behavior. Compared with individuals who received memory training, individuals trained in compassion were more likely to help a stranger during the course of  a game (Lieberg et al 2011).

Also, compared with participants trained in affective empathy, they showed less activity in parts of the brain associated with "second-hand" pain and distress. Yet brain regions linked with reward, love, and affiliation remained active (Klimecki et al 2014). 

Similar techniques have been used successfully with adolescents (Reddy et al 2013), and they may be adaptable for younger individuals.

For preschoolers, researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have developed and tested a 12 week classroom program called the Kindness Curriculum (Flook et al 2015).

Among other things, it features group lessons in attention to emotions in the self and others; practical brainstorming sessions for helping others;  and exercises in showing gratitude. A randomized, controlled study found the program to be effective for teaching empathy and preschool social skills (Flook et al 2015).

The researchers responsible for the Kindness Curriculum are making it available to the public for free. You can sign up for your own copy here.

Teaching empathy tip #6: Help young children improve their face-reading skills

It's hard to show empathy if you can't read faces well.

Some children -- preschoolers in particular -- are at a disadvantage because they misinterpret facial expressions. If you show them photographs of people modeling different emotions (happiness, sadness, anger, fear, surprise, and disgust), these kids misidentify what they see. And their difficulties can cause social problems (Parker 2013).

Is there anything we can do about this? Yes. For more information, see these evidence-based tips on how to help children decipher non-verbal cues of emotion.

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?

Not really.

Experiments show that simply "going through the motions" of making a facial expression can make us experience the associated emotion.

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 emotion-appropriate changes in heart rate, skin conductance, and body temperature (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, eh? 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 children 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 can 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 their parents use inductive discipline--an approach that emphasizes rational explanations and moral consequences, not arbitrary rules and heavy-handed punishments.

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 Saltzein 1967).

For related information, see this article about authoritative parenting,  parental style that features an inductive approach to discipline. In addition, see these tips for fostering self-control and handling disruptive, aggressive behavior.

Teaching empathy tip #9: Educate kids about failures of the imagination

Have you ever failed to prepare adequately for an outing, because you didn't imagine how cold, or hungry, or thirsty, or tired you were going to be? This is what researchers call the "hot-cold empathy gap," and it appears to be a universal problem.

When people are comfortable, calm, and confident, they forget what it's like to be in the grip of a "hot" state. They forget how desperate certain physical conditions -- like hunger, thirst, sleeplessness, and pain -- can make one feel. And they underestimate the power of emotional states, like fear.

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 instance, when we're taking with our children about something painful that they've experienced, we can offer them examples of other people who've been through something similar. The idea isn't to dismiss the child's feelings, but rather to acknowledge those feelings, and help the child feel more connected with others.

In addition, we can teach kids about the existence of the empathy gap, and the way it can bias our judgments. Before we decide that someone is being unreasonable, we should ask ourselves: Have we forgotten what it feels like to be in his situation? 

Teaching empathy tip #10: Talk with children about mechanisms of moral disengagement -- the rationalizations that people use to justify callous or cruel acts

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, a ruse made convincing 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. Children can do it, too.

If we're really serious about teaching empathy, I think it's important for kids to learn about Milgram's research and about the kinds of rationalizations that people use to excuse callous or cruel behavior. One of the most common is the tendency to view people from out-groups as less human, or less deserving of respect and compassion.

For more information, check out this article on mechanisms of moral disengagement.

Other helpful ideas for teaching empathy

For related information useful for teaching empathy, check out these research-inspired social skills activities for children and teenagers, as well as these pages about the science of empathy.

References: Tips for teaching empathy

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Images for "Teaching empathy":

image of brother and infant sister by istock

image of man with giggly toddler by Quinn Dombrowski/flickr

image of teenagers by Hepingting/flickr

image of woman reading with kids by Rod Library / flickr

image of girl praying or meditating by Salvation Army USA West / flickr

image of three-headed man by istock

Content of "Teaching empathy" last modified 9/17