From comforting a friend with a skinned knee to imagining the life of someone on the other side of the world, empathy is one of the most defining parts of being human. Empathy lays the foundation for a life full of meaningful connections.
Kindness for kids and figuring out how to teach empathy to them can be challenging. Luckily, there are opportunities for showing your child how to be a more caring individual once you start looking for them.
In this guide, we’ll go over how empathy develops naturally throughout childhood. We’ll also explore how you can start building empathy skills in children through simple everyday activities.
Empathy in Child Development
Empathy is one of our most important tools for getting along in the social world. Along with the ability to regulate our own emotions, it’s the foundation of emotional intelligence for kids and adults.
Emotional empathy isn’t just recognizing that other people have feelings. It also means being able to imagine how others might be feeling in a given situation. It helps us show care and compassion for those around us, strengthening our social connections.
However, kids aren’t born understanding that other people are individuals with thoughts and feelings of their own. Instead, empathy forms and deepens gradually over time as kids develop and learn about different emotions:
- In infancy – Babies easily pick up on the emotions of their caregivers, mirroring basic feelings like joy and sadness.
- In toddlerhood – Around age 2 or 3, children begin to understand the concept of offering comfort when they sense distress in others. They know that other people want things and will feel sad if they don’t get them and happy if they do.
- In preschoolers – Around age 4 or 5, kids understand that other people have thoughts, beliefs, and feelings that are different from their own (also known as “theory of mind”).
Understanding how empathy develops will help you meet your child where they are so you can nurture this important skill at every stage.
A Parent’s Impact on a Child’s Empathy
To nurture a child's capacity for empathy and emotional understanding, it is crucial for parents to engage in meaningful conversations with their children, drawing inspiration from Daniel Siegel's research on "mindsight." Siegel emphasizes the significance of helping children develop a reflective awareness of their own thoughts and emotions, a concept he refers to as "thinking about thinking."
One effective way to implement this approach is through the power of language. Instead of merely pointing out behavior, parents can guide their children through a dialogue about their own thoughts, brains, and emotions. For instance, when a child hits a sibling out of impatience for a toy, a parent might say, "I noticed you really wanted that toy, and waiting was tough for you." By articulating these thoughts aloud, parents provide children with a framework for understanding their own emotions.
This process not only fosters self-awareness but also lays the foundation for empathetic thinking. By acknowledging and discussing their own emotional experiences, children begin to develop a heightened sensitivity to the thoughts and emotions of others. In this way, the use of mindful language becomes a powerful tool for wiring young minds for empathy and compassion.
Foundational Strategies for Fostering Empathy
Not everyone develops empathy at the same rate or to the same degree. There are individual differences in the ability to relate to other people’s feelings or to view situations from a different perspective, and neurodivergent kids may be less adept at expressions of empathy. Remember, this doesn’t mean kids with neurological differences, such as ASD or ADHD, lack caring for others. It simply means they may not pick up on or understand emotional cues as easily.
However, research has found that caregivers can do a lot to strengthen the empathy muscle in both neurodivergent and neurotypical kids by using social-emotional learning (SEL) techniques.
SEL is easy to incorporate into everyday interactions once you know how. Here are a few ways to get started and improve your child’s emotional literacy:
- Modeling empathetic behavior – Considering how you behave in front of your child is one of the best ways to teach any emotional skill. Let your child see you show care and concern for others. Talk with your child when you notice signs of someone’s emotions: “Look how big your sister is smiling! What do you think she’s feeling?” “Mikayla is sitting by herself. Do you think she would like to play too?” By being able to identify people's emotions and feelings, young kids will be better able to practice empathy on their own.
- Reading books – Books are one of the most powerful gateways we have to understand how other people think and feel. So, consider sharing stories with your child every day. Ask them to imagine the emotions characters might have in different situations. Look for books that explore lots of different feelings, like getting mad, being scared, and dealing with change.
- Fostering self-reflection – Developing a stronger understanding of their own emotions is a foundational step in teaching your child to relate to other people’s feelings. You can encourage this important skill by helping your child recognize and name their emotions: “You are frowning. Are you mad?” “You worked so hard on that. I’ll bet you’re proud of your hard work.”
Age-Appropriate Empathy Building Techniques
With a better understanding of how empathy grows, you’ll be able to support your child’s emotional learning more effectively. Let’s take a closer look at methods for teaching empathy at different developmental stages.
Ages 2-5: Recognizing and Naming Feelings
Empathy usually begins to strengthen around age 2. Researchers have found that the second year is when toddlers begin to:
- Understand that they are different from others
- Show concern for others
- Try to understand why others are distressed
- Perform prosocial behavior (sharing, comforting)
Parents have a big impact on the healthy development of empathy at this age. Here are some suggestions on how to model empathy:
Ages 6-8: Developing Perspective and Understanding
As your child’s brain matures, you can help them delve deeper into emotional empathy. At this stage, interactive play and conversations with you are great ways to help your child build a more nuanced sense of empathy.
Here are some empathy activities that encourage seeing things from another’s perspective:
- Encourage thoughtful reading and viewing – At this age, you can begin reading more complex chapter books together. As you do, discuss the story from different characters’ viewpoints. At Slumberkins, we’ve created a line of books that all include reflect and connect questions to help promote these discussions and deep thinking between parent and child.
- Use storytelling and role-playing – Play is an excellent tool for kids to imagine how other people might think and feel. Provide interactive toys like Kinspiration Kits that encourage dreaming up a variety of settings and acting out stories and adventures that feature different characters.
Empathy in Action: Practical Applications
Empathy goes beyond understanding what another is feeling—it really blossoms when we put our care for others into action. Let’s explore some practical ways to help your child bring empathy to life in the world around them.
Teaching Through Play
Child development research tells us that kids learn best through play. Here are some tips to bring empathy practice into playtime:
- Play cooperative board games – Cooperative games and teamwork activities for kids can build their communication skills and hone their ability to look at things from another point of view. A few excellent choices for ages 2 and up include Feelings Adventure, Baby Dinosaur Rescue, and Friends and Neighbors.
- Participate in pretend play – Imaginative play is the perfect chance to practice putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes. When playing pretend with your child, encourage them to take on different roles and suggest simple situations to act out: “What if I’m the little sister and you’re the big sister and I want you to share?”
Community Engagement and Volunteering
Teach your child that empathy includes care for the wider world by getting involved with community work and volunteering. Here are a few empathy activities that can work for any age:
- Beautify your neighborhood by picking up trash
- Paint affirmations on rocks (“You are special,” “You make the world brighter,” etc.) and place them around a bike path or park
- Collect cans for a food drive
- Draw pictures and deliver them to a local long-term care facility
- Bake cookies for a neighbor
- Help your child send Valentine’s Day cards or Thinking of You messages to friends, family, and other special people in their life
Addressing Challenges and Misconceptions
One common challenge in cultivating empathy is finding the balance between kindness to others and taking care of ourselves. Empathy is about considering other people’s feelings and recognizing that they are valid. It does not mean that we have to take on another person’s emotions or put them before our own.
Try to encourage your child to notice how other children might think or feel without pushing them into actions they’re uncomfortable with.
- Avoid forced apologies — Instead, focus on modeling care and understanding that their actions affect other people. If they grab a toy from someone, point out the consequence of their action: “Your brother is crying. It seems like he wasn’t done playing. Let’s try that again, and ask him first for a turn this time.”
- Avoid forced playtime or inclusion – It’s okay if your child doesn’t want to play with everyone. While you can encourage them to notice if another child is staying on the sidelines, let them decide on their own if they want to invite them to play. Empathy doesn’t mean sacrificing our own space or boundaries.
Open Up a World of Emotions With Slumberkins
Empathy is one of the most important tools in our emotional toolbox. From recognizing and naming emotions to learning that other people think and feel in their own unique ways, kids rely on caregivers to help their innate empathy deepen and grow.
If you’re looking for more tips on helping your child build their emotional skills, Slumberkins has all the resources you need.
Whether you need help talking about difficult feelings like anger or anxiety, or you simply want fun and engaging activities to share with your child, you’ll find it in our books, stuffies, therapeutic play kits, and more. Be part of creating a more compassionate world through the magic of Slumberkins.
Encyclopedia on Early Child Development. The development of theory of mind in early childhood. https://www.child-encyclopedia.com/pdf/expert/social-cognition/according-experts/development-theory-mind-early-childhood
Frontiers in Education. Considerations about how emotional intelligence can be enhanced in children with autism spectrum disorder. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/feduc.2021.639736/full
Journal of Family Psychology. The influence of parenting and temperament on empathy development in toddlers. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6533135/
Technium Social Sciences Journal. Emotional intelligence in autism. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/356911867_Emotional_Intelligence_in_Autism