children learn empathy - kids hugging

How Do Children Learn Empathy?

At the playground today, I was sitting on the sidewalk, looking down at my phone for a moment, as my kids ran back and forth, flower bush to slide. On one pass, my 6 year old slowed down and called out,

“Are you alright, mom?”

I looked up.

“Yeah! I was just reading something on my phone.”

“Oh, ok! It looked like you were sad.” And off he went.

Fast forward a few minutes. My 2 kids were running around with 4 or 5 other kids. I was staying back, but mostly watching my 2 year old since she has difficulty not falling off of curbs and breaking her face while running full toddler speed.

I noticed they kept running and screaming as soon as she would reach them. And off she would go, chasing after them. All of the others were around 6 years old, including my son.

I noticed she was looking frustrated. She wasn’t laughing. Then I heard her cry out, “Eli waiitttt!” She was trying to catch up with her brother, but she wasn’t fast enough. Cue heart shattering.

I was working my way towards them (it’s a big field plus playground), and saw her reach them again inside a flower bush area. They all took off. And she broke down sobbing. Eli almost ran past me with the other kids, but I said, “Is that Elsa crying?” He stopped and listened.

“I think it is,” he said. And he turned back and went to her. I stayed back, hidden by bushes, and watched. He went to her and hugged her and held her for a good 5 minutes. That is them in the image above.

Witnessing so much empathy from such a young person is a soul-filling experience. A moment of recognition that these little humans will grow up and contribute to the shift in humanity; moving a society from violence to empathy.


It is the ability to feel and share the feelings of another.


Without empathy, there is no humanity. If people don’t empathize with others than no one would ever help someone else out. It would be every man for himself. It would be a world full of hate, jealousy, disgust, selfishness, and violence. There is a huge lack of empathy in existence today. Just turn on the news. Or witness it driving down the road with people road-raging, in grocery stores with irritated customers waiting in line, and on and on. The point of empathy is one of the main points of our existence: connection with other people.


Model it. The most effective way to teach empathy is to model it. The whole “do as I say not as I do” doesn’t actually work. Children model what they see and experience.

Children learn empathy, first, by having someone empathize with them. We model it by comforting or trying to connect with those that are hurting, regardless of whether they are family or not. It can take the form of physically reaching out to someone, or it could be talking to your kids about something they are witnessing. We were at an indoor play area and a little boy kept yelling at the kids and scaring them, my son included. He asked why the boy would keep yelling at someone when they asked him to stop. I could have said because sometimes kids are mean. That mama bear is strong sometimes. But instead I chose to say, “Sometimes kids are hurting, so they hurt other people because they don’t know what else to do.” My son responded with, “Maybe he just needs a hug from his mom.” You’re right, sweetie. That helps you when you are hurting.


It’s actually very simple, but not always easy. The prime time to model empathy is when your kid feels most unlovable. When they are raging, screaming, or bawling their eyes out. These moments allow us, as parents, to be a lighthouse for them; a beacon of safety, hope, and understanding.

Some example phrases might be:

“You are so upset that we have to leave gramdma’s house. You wish we could stay forever.” A hug helps here. And sometimes add in, “I feel sad leaving her house too. I miss her. It’s ok to cry and feel sad. I’m here for you.”

“You are so mad! So mad that you pushed your friend down for taking your stuff.” Let them talk to you. Don’t lecture. They know pushing isn’t the answer. After a cool down period. “Your friend looks pretty upset that he got pushed. He looks like he could use a friend right now.” And let him lead. But don’t force it.

You could even model empathy by comforting the friend so your child sees. “I’m so sorry you got pushed down. Are you alright? Getting pushed is no fun at all.”

I try my best not to lecture. Depending on the age (like for my 2 year old), I might say something like, “Ouch! Hitting hurts. I see how mad you are that I pulled you away from your brother’s activity.” A 2 year old might not realize that hitting actually hurts. So I let them know in a non-judgmental way. But for older kids, lecturing just makes them feel ashamed, more so than they already do. They know hitting isn’t the answer, or spitting, or yelling at people, or whatever it is that hurt someone else. The best course of action is to, first, make sure everyone is safe, then to try and connect with the hurting/”acting out” child so that they can talk about what is going on deep down under all of those layers of protection/destruction.


  • Talk about emergency vehicles when they pass by with lights and sirens. “Those people get calls to help people that are hurt or in danger.”
  • Talk about situations you see that might be uncomfortable. The homeless population where we live is rather large. My kid will often point out a person sleeping on a park bench or other scenarios. We talk about the complexity of homelessness and ways that we can make a positive difference for others.
  • We do not force empathy. Meaning we don’t force our child to say I’m sorry. Read here for why. We don’t force sharing. Read here. We don’t force affection. Read here. And we don’t use our own emotions to manipulate a response out of them. Empathy has to come from within, it can’t be manufactured from external pressure.

Empathy is an easy skill to learn. But doling out empathy to children can be difficult if you were raised in a way that often came with a “suck it up” mentality. Responding to kids (and all people) with empathy will increase their emotional intelligence (and yours!), help them learn to regulate their own emotions (and yours), and allow them to feel heard. Feeling heard allows people to feel valued which leads to self-confidence and self-love.

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