4 ways to teach empathy skills to children of all ages

4 ways to teach empathy skills to children of all ages

By Gabby Cushman

The skill every social justice leader needs to know


Empathy is the core of all social justice work. Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, even if you have similar experiences, is crucial to understand what that person is going through. When I was in college, I was a peer facilitator for student support groups, and I talked to many students who brought different issues they were dealing with to the group. Often, they were experiencing problems I wasn’t, but it was my job to make them feel validated and understood. The empathy skills I developed through therapy allowed me to comprehend what our group members were feeling and, more importantly, why they felt that way. We often try to reach this understanding as advocates as well, so while we introduce social justice to our little ones, we should also be working on empathy skills with them. We will look at four different ways to help kids develop empathy that can be used at any age. That way, you have a starting point for bringing up empathy with your little ones!

Model empathy skills for your kids

Young kids often learn skills best from watching the adults in their lives. Plus, it’s always good for us to continue practicing empathy as adults! You can use examples in your daily life to showcase to your little ones how empathy works. Let’s say your friend gets good news about their job, or maybe you’re watching a sad movie. Explain to your kids what you’re feeling and why you feel so strongly about things happening to others. Use phrases like “I’m so happy for them!” or “I feel sorry about what’s happening to them.” And always remember to express empathy to your little ones, even when you’re upset with them. Let them know you understand why they’re feeling what they’re feeling.

Discuss and label emotions together

When kids can start naming and understanding their own emotions at an early age, it helps them take better care of their mental health and show empathy to their peers. When I started therapy as a teenager, building emotional awareness was the first thing I worked on with my therapist. It became the basis of my advocacy and mental health work! Young ones sometimes need help finding the right words to express their feelings. When your child feels afraid of something, such as a thunderstorm, avoid dismissing their fear by saying, “There’s nothing to be afraid of.” Instead, ask them, “what scares you about the storm?” Explore their feelings about the subject matter, which will allow them to better understand how their emotions work, and that can lead them to understand other people’s emotions too.

Help out at home, school, or in the community

Assisting others is the best way to practice empathy and kindness. This can be done by helping out in the home, at school, or in your local community. Participating in family chores together or all working together to help one of the kids with their homework would be a great way to help at home. At school, you can encourage your students to help with classroom pick-up or start a donation drive together as a class. Or, you and your little ones can volunteer in your local area. That could allow your children to meet people from various backgrounds and learn to show empathy for everyone, even those who are different from them. 

Praise empathetic behavior

When your little ones show empathy to someone else, you should let them know that’s good! Acknowledging and encouraging this behavior will reinforce it for them and make it more likely for them to be empathetic in the future. When you do praise your kids, make sure to be specific. For example, if you notice a child on the playground comforting a peer who hurt themselves, you can tell them, “Thank you for trying to make your friend feel better while they were hurt. That was very kind of you!” This lets them know that they should comfort others when they’re sad or hurt. 

Empathy is essential for social justice work, mental health, and life in general. We interact with other people daily and use our empathy skills to build relationships with them. The more we all work on empathy, the better we are at making others feel valued. 

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