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Now Is the Right Time!
As a parent or someone in a parenting role, you play an essential role in helping your child/teen develop empathy. There are intentional ways to grow a healthy parent-child/teen relationship while growing your child’s/teen’s capacity for empathy from the time they are born all the way through their teen years. Empathy is essential for your child/teen to experience happy healthy relationships because it allows for emotional connection to others beginning early with family and friends and extending as they develop into successful school, work, social, and even romantic relationships.
Empathy is the way people effectively relate to one another. It’s the ability to perceive what others are feeling, process that information, and respond in a compassionate manner. The ability to understand what someone else is feeling requires that your child/teen first be able to identify and recognize their own feelings, which is not always easy. It takes practice in self-awareness to grow this emotional literacy – a skill many adults struggle with as well. Medical professionals, businesses, and even politicians invest large sums in empathy trainings where they learn the foundational skill of identifying and labeling their own feelings so that they can go on to identify and understand the feelings of others and act compassionately. However, parents or those in a parenting role should not feel intimidated by the skills required for instilling empathy and identifying feelings. Empathy is a skill that can be taught and learned, and the parent-child/teen relationship is the prime setting.
As a parent or someone in a parenting role, you can nurture, model, and teach the skills of empathy for your child/teen. Starting at birth, parents interact with their infant by gazing into their eyes and making this first essential emotional connection. From there, parents spend daily face-to-face time with their child mirroring the sounds and expressions their child makes. This reflection of facial expressions and attitudes allows the child to recognize their feelings and uniqueness reflected in you. As your child/teen develops and learns more about themself and their own feelings through their interactions with you, you can help them develop the skill of reading, identifying, and understanding the feelings of others. Reading the feelings of others involves paying attention to their body language. In fact, children/teens who can read nonverbal feelings tend to be more successful and emotionally stable.1
Once parents and children/teens are able to notice and identify their feelings and the feelings of others accurately, there is an opportunity to change what they do, change how they think, and change how they respond. Growing these healthy social and emotional habits leads to intentional behaviors that promote empathy and healthy relationships.
Your 11-14-year-old is going through significant developmental stages involving their social awareness and understanding of others’ viewpoints, and now is the right time to get them thinking about how others think and feel to grow their skills in empathy.
Your child’s/teen’s ability to understand the experience of others and to make meaningful connections with people in their life is based on their capacity for empathy. You can support their developing empathy and enrich your relationship with your child/teen as you embrace teachable moments to interact and cultivate an awareness of feelings.
Today, in the short term, building empathy can create
- greater opportunities for connection, cooperation, and enjoyment;
- feelings of trust, safety, and security;
- greater ability to develop healthy relationships with peers and adults including those who are different from your child/teen; and
- a sense of wellbeing and motivation to engage.
Tomorrow, in the longer term, growing empathy in your child/teen
- prepares them for success in school;
- builds skills in self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, healthy relationships, and responsible decision making;
- offers a greater sense of connectedness and responsibility to the larger community and world; and
- deepens family trust and intimacy.
Five Steps for Building Empathy
This five-step process helps you and your child/teen build skills in empathy as well as other important life skills. The same process can be used to address other parenting issues as well (learn more about the process).
These steps are done best when you and your child/teen are not tired or in a rush.
Intentional communication and actively building a healthy parenting relationship will support these steps.
Step 1. Get Your Child/Teen Thinking by Getting Their Input
Children/teens have a natural capacity for empathy, but like most skills their emerging empathy must be cultivated and encouraged. A good place to start is by asking questions and prompting their thinking. Asking children/teens to reflect on their own feelings then shifting your questions to how they perceive others might be feeling can help them realize things they have in common. Knowing how to pause in the midst of a big emotion in order to identify and name a feeling does not come naturally for most children/teens; it requires parents and those in a parenting role to gain input, teach/model, practice, support, and recognize.
Gaining your child’s/teen’s input when drawing attention to how they are feeling and to the feelings of others supports their interests and advances their learning. Asking questions prompts their thinking and helps them understand their own and others’ feelings, thoughts, and motivations. In gaining input from your child/teen, you are
- supporting them to create a plan to pause and recognize/name their own feelings;
- showing the importance of and complex skills involved with reflecting on others’ feelings and thoughts to better understand them;
- letting them know that you are open to talking about all kinds of people, relationships, and differences, even if those conversations may feel uncomfortable at first;
- making sure they know that you see the ways that people are different from each other and that you celebrate and respect those differences;
- countering any messages of exclusion your child/teen might receive from peers or others; and
- deepening your ability to communicate with one another.
- Ask your child/teen to make a plan for pausing in the heat of a big emotion. “What could you do when you are upset to help you remember to stop and name your feeling? Would you like to put your hand over your heart? Would you like to picture a stop sign in your mind? What would work best for you?”
- Ask your child/teen to tune in and try to identify their feelings. You could ask them if their body is giving them any signals or hints as to what they are feeling. “What do you think you are feeling right now? How does your body feel? Hot in the face? Sick in your stomach?”
- You could also ask your child/teen to rate the feeling on a scale of 1-10. “So, you are feeling frustrated. How frustrated are you on a scale from ‘1 – not very frustrated at all’ to ‘10 – the most frustrated you have ever felt?’”
- It is important to withhold judgment when your child/teen expresses their feelings. You want to encourage that all feelings are valid, and empathy means believing how another person says they are feeling even if their feelings do not align with how you have felt during a similar experience. This can be challenging for parents when their child/teen may have a big emotional reaction to something that seems small to an adult; validating their big feeling is the first step in helping them cope with their feelings and recognize the feelings of those around them.
- You will have to guide your child/teen as they learn to identify their feelings, and there will be times that your child/teen may confuse the words they choose with the feelings they feel. This is where a feelings chart is a helpful tool as you learn together the physical and facial expressions of different feelings.
- If your child/teen is at a loss for words, parents or those in a parenting role may describe what they see and label their child’s/teen’s feeling, then ask if they are correct. For example “I see that your fists are clenched and your face is red. Are you feeling mad?” Many times children/teens will correct parents if they mislabel their child’s/teen’s feeling.
- Ask about what it means to truly focus on a friend in order to understand and show empathy. In order to show genuine care, phones and other distractions need to be put away. Ask “How do you show others that you care enough to fully listen?”
- Each time there is an opportunity, ask your child/ teen, “How do you feel? How do you think your friend feels?” Remember that naming how someone else feels takes skill and practice. Misreading another’s feelings or thoughts is a natural part of learning to become more accurate.
- For example, if your child/teen is with others who are expressing emotion, help your child/teen notice cues from other children’s/teens’ faces and body language. For example, “Her face is red and she keeps turning away. Do you think she’s feeling frustrated? What else could that mean?” Explore interpretations – embarrassment, anger? Then ask: “Which feels right?”
- When reading books or watching movies with your child/teen, discuss the characters’ thoughts and feelings. You might ask: “What do you notice about how she’s feeling?” and “What could she be thinking?” Leave plenty of quiet space for them to think of some ideas. Then, you might follow up with asking how they might feel or think in a similar situation to show that differences will exist.
- If your child/teen is feeling unsure about how others are feeling or is buried in their own feelings, ask questions to help them. You could say,
- “What do you notice the other child/teen is feeling?”
- “How do you know from their facial expression?”
- “What does their voice sound like? How are they standing or moving?”
- “How would you feel if you were in that situation?”
- Discuss noticing pain and what to do when you feel another’s pain. You might ask, “Was there a time when you noticed someone in pain? What did you experience? How did you feel?” Then, you might share ideas of what you can do when you are feeling another’s pain or even suffering. Is there one small compassionate action you can take to show you care? Doing something – even if small – shows a child/teen small ways they can help and alleviates a little of another’s and their own pain as they take action.
- Treat your children/teens as the digital experts they are. Ask them to teach you about the places they visit online and the characters/people they encounter. Ask about your child’s/teen’s feelings when they are viewing social media. And ask them how they think other people feel when they get comments, judgments, or criticism. Be sure not to judge your child/teen when doing this but maintain your own curiosity, interest, and openness to learn.
Because children/teens are curious about others, any social situations, news stories, or community problems are opportunities to raise good questions about others’ thoughts and feelings for important practice with the complexities of empathic thinking. Raise these conversations regularly to offer practice with a variety of people and situations.
Step 2. Teach New Skills by Interactive Modeling
Your reflective questions gaining input from your child/teen will naturally lead into empathy skill building, perspective taking, appreciation of diversity, and respect for others. Teaching can help your child/teen grow new skills and behaviors. Learning new skills and behaviors requires teaching/modeling, practice, support, and recognition.
Paying attention to how you identify, understand, and express your own feelings and behaviors is an important place to start. It gives your child/teen practice accurately identifying emotions in someone else with whom they are close. You might ask yourself:
- “How do I experience challenging emotions like worry, fear, anger, rejection?”
- “When do I tend to hide certain feelings or mask them with other easier-to-accept feelings like covering up hurt or anxiousness with an outward expression of anger?”
- “How do I let my child/teen know and understand what I am feeling?”
Children/teens first need to learn to empathize with you. Yes, teens are keenly attuned to their peers, but you are still incredibly influential in their lives. They can learn empathy from you if you are vulnerable and transparent with them about your own feelings. If you are like most, you have learned to hide or mask emotions that may challenge or upset others. So raising your own self-awareness and actively working on how you communicate emotions is key to helping your child/teen develop this critical life skill. Your modeling of healthy feelings identification and expression is a powerful teacher. If you are experiencing a big emotion, it is healthy to give yourself a moment of quiet to stop and truly identify your own feeling; then you will be ready to articulate how you are feeling in an age appropriate, respectful manner to your child/teen.
Learning about developmental milestones can help you better understand what your child/teen is experiencing.2
- Eleven-year-olds are trying to assert their independence, imagining themselves in adult roles. As they are better able to see from another person’s perspective, they also increase their worries about being liked, who’s “in” and who’s “out,” and may engage in excluding others in order to gain popularity. This is an important time to promote inclusion and kindness. Also, eleven-year-olds need to realize that their peers are also worried about being liked to help grow their empathy for others. Friendships may come and go rapidly as they attempt to figure out where they feel they belong.
- Twelve-year-olds are gaining confidence and leadership abilities, and they may feel more secure in their friendships. They are eager to figure out more serious adult issues and where they stand. As they seek out risks, peers will exert pressure and also support. Disturbing news and social issues could preoccupy them more with their growing social awareness. They also have a lot of energy and need for sleep, so they may have less resilience and find themselves more rundown by stress.
- Thirteen-year-olds can have worries related to their newly acquired body changes and physical appearance. They can be highly sensitive as they work to define their independent identity while still being dependent upon you. They will feel an ever-greater sense of peer pressure, and though they may be pushing you away, they also require your continued support and guidance including hopes for your approval. They will be working on empathy naturally but may interpret others’ thoughts and feelings with a sensitivity and a negative bias. You can support by checking in, reflecting, and asking good questions about multiple possible perspectives.
- Fourteen-year-olds may act invincible and like they know it “all.” Despite this, they still look to adults to set boundaries, negotiate rules, and listen to their needs. They are gaining interest in others as romantic partners and will have crushes, broken hearts, and worries related to the world of relationships. Friends will be highly important in their lives, and they may spend lots of time communicating through texts, gaming, and messaging. Be sure that you continue to help them build accuracy in their empathy by reflecting and asking questions about possible interpretations.
Teaching is different than just telling. Teaching builds basic skills, grows problem-solving abilities, and sets your child/teen up for success. Teaching also involves modeling and practicing the positive behaviors you want to see, promoting skills, and preventing problems. Empathy is a skill that can be taught.
- Set the rule or expectation in your household: Feelings are always right and okay! This helps each family member feel safe to express what they are feeling. What you do with those feelings is the important next step that determines whether you take responsibility for your own feelings and actions so that you do not harm yourself or others.
- Do daily feelings check-ins as a routine at dinnertime or another moment when family members are together! Talk to family members about the importance of emotional honesty. Agree not to judge one another but care for each other when challenging feelings are expressed. Post your feelings chart somewhere visible as a reminder!
- Notice facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language in others that indicate feelings. Remember communication is 90% body language and emotional signals and only 10% verbal. Practice while watching a movie together or while people watching at a busy airport or mall.
- Notice pain or distress. Think together about ways in which to show care or offer help. Take one small step together to help a person in pain. Discuss how it feels before taking action and after taking action.
- Practice and support inclusion. For example, if your child/teen is hesitant to hang out with someone who looks or sounds different than they do, ask questions and then support your child/teen by offering encouragement. “How do you think they would feel if we invited them to hang out? Perhaps they would feel excited to be included. Let’s go over and say hello together.”
- Develop empathic thinking when it’s most challenging for your child/teen. For example, when your child/teen points a blaming finger saying, “He did it!” you may respond with:
- “What do you think he’s feeling?”
- “What choice would you make if you were feeling sad or hurt?”
- “What do you think could make him feel better?”
Don’t tell your child/teen what they feel; ask instead. You want to empower children/teens with their own feelings vocabulary. Be sure to ask about a mix of emotions if you are perceiving them. You might say, “You look sad and frustrated. Is that right?”
Step 3. Practice to Grow Empathy Skills and Develop Habits
Your daily routines can be opportunities for you and your child/teen to practice vital new skills if you seize those chances. Practice provides important opportunities to grow empathy as they interact with you and others. Practice grows vital new brain connections that strengthen and eventually form habits.
- Read together. Discuss the characters’ motivation for choices and their feelings when conflicts or problems occur. Be sure to name a multitude of feelings or point out contradictory feelings since, often, a person experiences more than one feeling and sometimes feelings can be conflicting.
- When your child/teen comes home with a story of friends or peers at school, seize the chance to practice empathy skills. Be sure and ask, “What do you think they were feeling? Thinking? And what could make things better? What were you thinking and feeling when that happened? What might you do next time to feel better about the situation? Is there any harm that needs to be repaired between you and another peer?”
- When the whole family is together and talking, try and predict one another’s feelings and see how accurate you can be. Playing board games or cards can be another time to predict or guess others’ feelings as they go through high and low points during the game.
Resist judging other children/teens who hurt your child/teen either with words or actions. Most often, you don’t know the whole story of the child/teen who is lashing out, but you do know one thing for certain – that child/teen is hurting. First, listen to the feelings of your child/teen and express care. Then, express that it’s impossible to see the whole picture. “Children/teens only say hurtful words when they are hurt themselves. Do you know why they might be hurting?” Prompt compassionate thinking. Then coach your child/teen how to respond in ways that do no harm to self or another. “Next time, could you move away or ask them to stop?”
Step 4. Support Your Child’s/Teen’s Development and Success
At this point, you have been developing your child’s/teen’s skills in empathy, and you are allowing them to practice. Now, you can offer support when it’s needed by reteaching, monitoring, and coaching. Parents and those in a parenting role naturally offer support as they see their child/teen fumble with a situation in which they need help. This is no different.
By providing support, you are reinforcing their ability to take another’s perspective and begin to predict with some accuracy what another is thinking and feeling. This awareness helps to grow their relationships.
- Initially, your child/teen may need active support to encourage empathy. Use “Tell me…” statements and ask them to demonstrate empathy. You could say, “Tell me what you understand about how your sister is feeling.”
- Recognize effort by using “I notice” statements like: “I noticed how you saw they were sad and shared your favorite snack to help them feel better. That was kind of you.”
- On days with extra challenges when you can see your child/teen is frustrated or feeling incapable, proactively remind your child/teen of their strength. In a gentle, non-public way, you can whisper in your child’s/teen’s ear, “Remember how you gave your sister a hug to feel better the other day? What could you do for your brother who is having a hard day today?”
- Actively reflect on how your child/teen is feeling when approaching challenges. You can ask questions like:
- “How did things go during lunch? How have you been feeling?” Offering a chance to talk gives insight into your child’s/teen’s social challenges.
- “Seems like you got frustrated with friends taking sides. Is that right? How can you make things better?” Be sure to reflect on the outcomes of their choices.
Don’t fix problems between your child/teen and another. You could be taking away valuable learning for your child/teen. Instead ask them questions about how they can get their own needs met (“Could you take a break? Maybe sit somewhere else for lunch for a day or two?”) and about how they can understand each other’s feelings and start to feel better.
Step 5. Recognize Effort and Quality to Foster Motivation
If your child/teen is working to grow their skills – even in small ways – it will be worth your while to recognize it. Your recognition can go a long way in promoting positive behaviors and expanding your child’s/teen’s empathy. Your recognition also promotes safe, secure, and nurturing relationships — a foundation for strong communication and a healthy relationship with you as they grow.
You can recognize your child’s/teen’s efforts with praise, high fives, and hugs. Praise is most effective when you name the specific behavior of which you want to see more. For example, “You went and checked on your friend who was clearly upset. I love seeing that!”
Avoid bribes. A bribe is a promise for a behavior, while praise is special attention after the behavior. While bribes may work in the short term, praise grows lasting motivation for good behavior and effort. For example, instead of saying, “If you share your snack with your sister, I will let you have more time with your friends” (which is a bribe), try recognizing the behavior after. “You shared your snack with your sister. I really appreciate that!”
- Recognize when your child/teen identifies the thoughts or feelings of another. “We guessed your friend was tired because they were quiet. You were correct.”
- Recognize small steps along the way. Each little discovery about another person’s thoughts and feelings is an exciting step forward. Remember that your recognition can work as a tool to promote more positive behaviors. Find small ways your child/teen is making an effort and let them know you see them.
- Build celebrations into your routine. For example, if your child/teen talks to a new classmate, offer a chance for a hangout or a simple after school snack together. If your child/teen finds a way to help a friend feel better, recognize their effort. Include hugs, high fives, and fist bumps in your ways to appreciate one another.
Engaging in these five steps is an investment that builds your skills as an effective parent to use on many other issues and builds important skills that will last a lifetime for your child/teen. Throughout this tool, there are opportunities for children/teens to become more self-aware, to deepen their social awareness, to exercise their self-management skills, to work on their relationship skills, and to practice responsible decision making.