Children's Library vellayambalam

Empathy in children

25th April 2014 | Dr. Anish NRK

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. It is to understand what you would feel like if you were in someone else’s situation. Ability of a child to understand others emotions becomes apparent in the initial few months. The baby will reciprocate by extending her tiny arms, when the mother gestures with her upper limbs. Children with certain conditions like autism, childhood psychosis or strong conduct disorder traits may lack empathetic feelings to varying extents. Studies in children show that, when children are shown video clips which depict people suffering pain by coincidence, neural circuits related to pain and moral reasoning are being activated in their brain. This feeling to recognize emotions is probably innate and may be achieved unconsciously. Yet it can be trained and achieved with various degrees of intensity or accuracy.  The outcome of instilling this emotion in children at a very early stage has far reaching outcomes . Children who are more empathic will do better in class, in family, in social situations, and in their careers. They will handle social situations without losing their wits, and will be admired by their peers. Parents have a big role in making their children develop this quality.

But such an emotional quality is slowly receding from our growing ups, not to forget the impact media and social sites. To add to this is the instinct to outsmart the child next to you, which is unknowingly aggravated by the competitive culture in which we raise our children. It is uncomfortable to see that neither at school nor at home parents and teachers are doing their bit to nurture empathy in children.


Following are some useful tips to nurture empathy in children right from early infancy:

  1. Start playing emotional games with your baby. Say something like “What will mama do when she is happy?” and enact something emotionally with gestures and sounds that will make her happy. Don’t forget to add emotional intonation to your voice too. Watch her reciprocate that in her face. Repeat the same with other emotions too. Watch the baby quickly responding to those emotional changes.
  2. Several toys are available with detachable facial parts (eyebrows, lips, cheeks), which can be used to make different facial expressions different moods. When children play with them, they imagine and model the different basic human emotions. Studies show that when we are asked to imagine different facial expressions, we also experience the associated emotions.
  3. Simple games like “FACES” in which you make a face, and the child has to identify the feeling you are trying to convey. Alternatively you can play this by drawing simple faces or smilies with these expressions which can be identified by the child.
  4. Encourage your child to express her emotional problems verbally and non verbally. The same goes for the parent also. For example let your angry child know “Do you know how sad mama is to see her beautiful princess in tears. Why don’t we sit together and talk that I can know what is troubling you?”. This is better than letting her sitting there alone, not ventilating her feelings.
  5. When the child lands you in a socially embarrassing context, say for example asking for a show-piece in your friends house to play with, instead of hushing him up or distracting him, ask him how he would feel, if some one broke his toy.
  6. Encourage your child to recognize and like emotions expressed in the family. For example if he is playing with the newborn baby, you can say something like: “see how the baby is reaching for your arms and looking at you with those tiny eyes. I think she likes you so much.”
  7. One good example is worth a thousand stories. Children always observe and learn from adults. One way to teach children empathy is to show them the way. While visiting a family friend who is hospitalized, you can always take the child along. Let him give the bouquet and wish a speedy recovery.
  8. Encourage children to listen to others view points. This can be done at the family level, by discussing issues of emotional significance (how your mother made pancake for you when you were a kid and you enjoyed it) at dinner time and letting the child listen and participate.
  9. Your child may not be old enough to actively participate in some activity that materialize empathetic feelings towards others. But still, you can always encourage her to think and communicate her feelings. For example you can always ask: “Grandfather is sad that he broke his glass, and we will help him find a new one. But can you think of anything else which will make him feel better?”. This way just encouraging him to imagine something to help some one else, by placing himself in the other persons shoes, will evoke empathetic feelings.
  10. Encourage sharing: A child who has learnt to share his cookies with his friends before having for himself, has advanced farther in the lessons for empathy. You can encourage this further with words of encouragement like: “I liked the way you let Anna have half the cookies. It was so kind of you.”
  11. Always remember to be a good model yourself. Every child learns and observes from his environment, primarily his home. Try to be empathetic, compassionate and caring in the family also. In a interesting study among primary school children, they were asked to define LOVE. One response was that,” love is when mom tastes the food before serving us, so that I get the tastiest food every day.”
  12. Its almost difficult to avoid the negative influences of different media, flooding the present world. However, a wise parent can definitely turn the table to his advantage. For example if you happen to watch a tv show with your child, depicting some one victimized, you can always ask your child what the offended person must have felt. This will make the child think, rather than you asking him to turn off the tv.


Development is not all about economic development, but social and cultural development also. A society can develop fully, only when adults show empathetic behavior and encourage its development in children. This will help in resolving conflicts before they can turn into violence and antisocial activities and drugs.


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