Friendship: Children Developing Empathy

May is Friendship month at Childhood 101. You will see a range of posts by both myself and the regular contributors about friendship as it applies to our children and our own experiences as Mums. Today I would like to begin a short series about children’s social development with a post about empathy.

The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.


Teacher observation, 4 and 5 year olds, 2007
Developing empathy
A child who has been told by another child, “You’re the roughest boy in the world,” is standing by the window looking sad.  An educator suggests the child tells his peers how he feels.  The child approaches the peers with verbal support from the educator who says, “X, Y and Z, A is upset because you said something that was not only untrue but unkind.”
X offers, “Can I get you a tissue?” A nods.
Y offers, “Do you want a hug?” A nods and says yes.
Z offers, “Do you need ice?”  The educator reminds them that A’s feelings are hurt, not muscles or bones.
Z says, “Oh, well can we do anything else to help?”  A nods and they have a group hug and resume their play.

Children learn socially through;

  • Observing and imitating adults and other children. Your interactions with family, friends and strangers, your relationships and friendships, these are what your children see, mimic and learn from. More so then your words.
  • Positive reinforcement. When your child does the right thing, be sure to notice it. Your positive, “How generous of you to share your car with Tommy,” has a much greater impact on their social development then a reprimand for not sharing. Always try to catch them doing the right thing, however small and expected the behaviour is.
  • Opportunity to play with other children. Playing with children of the same age, older and younger all provide opportunities for your children to learn, observe and practice a range of social skills.

Concern for others and sensitivity to the feelings of others are important empathetic behaviours for young children to learn. To support your child as they develop these skills;

  • Encourage them to talk about how they feel and what they want. And to listen when others do the same. For toddlers, teaching them to say in a strong voice, “Stop,” and to put up a hand in a stop motion is a good starting point. Preschoolers can be taught to say, “Stop, I don’t like that.” Kindergarten aged and older children can take this same approach one step further and say, “Stop, I don’t like it when you…(describe the behaviour).” This will empower your child to feel heard when they feel hurt or upset by others.
  • Look for opportunities to support young children to be aware of the feelings of others and/or to solve social conflicts (these are often called ‘teachable moments’). When talking to a child or group of children, help them to recognise the emotion being expressed – “Sally is feeling sad because she kicked her toe”, to relate that emotion to their own experience – “Remember when you hurt your finger and it made you feel sad?”, and to think of ways in which they might offer support or assistance – “Can you think of anything which might make Sally feel better?”
  • Talk about the feelings of characters in books that you read together. Just this morning Immy and I were reading the wonderful picture book, Amy and Louis by Libby Gleeson and talking about the sadness felt by the title characters as a result of them missing each other. Talk about all sorts of emotions – happiness, surprise, fear, anger, sadness, anticipation, love, and ask questions like, How can you tell what the character is feeling? Are there any obvious clues in their facial expression, actions and/or words? What has made them feel that way? What might make them feel better?

In what ways do you encourage your children to show empathy for others?

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  1. Love the book Amy & Louis one of our all time favourites. Great post on empathy Christie. V different with our two (6 and 4) as the youngest has ASD and struggles in this area (as part of the disorder) but we are still working on it… just different. Great series thanks

  2. If I had to list my number one concern for young children – it is the development of empathy during the early childhood years. Well done on this post!

  3. Well, I think that in the example you gave the educator has invalidated the feelings of another child who made “the roughest kid” comment. I have a child who is very empathetic and who knows how to say stop. However, I noticed so many times that her requests to stop falls on deaf ears unless an adult interferes. I truly think that we cannot expect empathy from 4-5 year olds when they are caught up in play.

    1. I think you raise a valid point, Natalie, about children being caught up in play. Without knowing the backstory of these children and their interactions it is hard for us to see the complete picture from one little snippet, in this case, the teacher was using a teachable moment to help a child who had been ostracised to rejoin the group and the play by helping the other children consider the situation as with as much empathy as a 4-5 year old can, four and five year olds can also be quite tough when it comes to excluding children!

  4. I agree that childrens education in empathy can be enhanced internally within the family environment then enhanced at school. This is where I dont like schools with a No Touch policy.
    I have to agree with Natalie entirely. In an ideal world this would be the perfect solution, unfortunately, childrens emotional intelligence vary within a group; one child will react differently emotionaly to another’s actions. Understanding childrens nature at varying ages seems to be forgotten at times with adult solutions of social correctness. Children at this age are ‘fearless’ saying & seeing things as they see it, then move on quite quickly. It might have been a better step to have asked the child why he might have been called ‘the roughest’ and helping him to understand consequences comes from actions, good or bad; even finding that first child was incorrect in the first place.

    1. Thank you, Sjorcha, for your comment. As teachers and parents we all make judgment calls when it comes to our actions and interventions in children’s play. In this instance, the teacher made that call based on what she knew of these children and their relationships, the circumstances observed at this time, and the focus of their curriculum. Your suggestion for an alternative solution is most definitely another potential resolution.

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