How Do You Teach Kids to Be Empathetic? (And Why It’s Important)

Posted September 18, 2008 by

It wasn’t until my son came home from middle school one day with a story about witnessing some kids bullying a boy with disabilities that I was forced to take a long, hard look about what I was teaching my kids about empathy. Sure, I was aware of the importance of empathy: the ability to put oneself in someone else’s shoes, promoting kindness, teaching tolerance. But this situation had me wondering: How exactly am I promoting empathy at home so that my kids can then do the same at school or in social situations?

A family meeting was called and my son reiterated what had happened. A small group of boys were engaging in name calling and teasing towards a boy in his class who has autism. I asked each of my children what they thought and they all said it sounded mean and they agreed that the boys deserved the suspension that they got. But then our conversation stalled. Time to dig deep into my psychologist’s hat and pull out a few probing questions, questions that I believe we should all be asking whenever bad behavior is either witnessed or practiced by our kids.

First, I asked them all, “How would you feel if someone called you those kinds of names?” Immediately, the conversation switched from this being someone elses problem to my kids internalizing what they would feel if they were on the receiving end of such bullying. After all, the definition of empathy is the identification with the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another. It’s important for all of our kids to ponder questions such as “How would I feel if….” and “What would happen if I were put in this situation?” My daughter (who’s only 6 and very sensitive) started to tear up and immediately said, “I would feel so, so sad!” My 9 year old son told us it would ruin his day. My 11 year old said it would be hard to forgive himself if he were mean to another person. Our conversation changed from what was previously an external problem to seriously discussing our own feelings and thoughts about a terrible situation. Slowly, I watched the idea of empathy creeping into the minds of my children.

While this conversation was great and I felt like we were making strides, it also seemed like I had to take it to the next level if my kids were really going to get this empathy thing. So I asked, “What do you think you should do when a situation like this comes up again?” This type of probing forces children to not just understand the definition of empathy, but spurs them into action, to be empathetic with others when needed. With my kids however, there was dead silence! So I reframed the question: “If you were the victim here, what would you have wanted the kids around you to do?” This, they got. My youngest piped up, “Tell the other kids to stop or tell a teacher.” My middle child (always ready to rumble) said, “Get in the other kids’ faces and protect the person who’s being bullied.” My oldest and most introspective child said he would think about it and get back to me. Fair enough, I thought. My kids were strategizing ways to be empathetic towards others right before my eyes.

By the way, if anyone reading this thinks I have perfectly well-behaved kids out of a television sitcom, my kids can be less than empathetic towards each other. In fact, they can be downright mean to one another. Now, I understand that a certain amount of infighting is going to occur among siblings so close in age, but I also feel it is important to teach them empathy with one another so they can transfer it to situations that arise outside of the home. So if you want your kids to be empathetic at school and with their friends, you need to lay down the law of what you expect out of them at home. This means no bullying each other (and let me tell you, I’ve seen plenty of that at times!), no name calling, no hitting, and no teasing. My kids know exactly what the consequences will be when they “can’t help it” and the meanness begins. On our chalkboard in the kitchen there is the phrase, “Treat Others as You Want to Be Treated”, which is, after all, the hallmark of empathy. When your kids know what you expect of them, you’d be surprised at how well they rise to the occasion.

A few days passed and my oldest son came home from school. “Mom,” he said, “I figured out what to do to help someone who is being teased.” Intrigued, I asked him what his thoughts were and listened as my son told me how he invited this boy with autism to sit with him and his friends at lunch each day so he wouldn’t feel left out. Lesson learned.


Dr. Joan Simeo Munson earned her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Denver. She has worked with incarcerated individuals, families, adolescents, and college students in a variety of settings, including county and city jails, community mental health centers, university counseling centers, and hospitals. She also has a background in individual, group, and couples counseling. Dr. Munson lives in Colorado with her husband and three energetic children. She currently has a private practice in Boulder where she sees adults, couples and adolescents.

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  1. lethania Report

    My problem with empathy is my children having empathy with one another.  My son (older) seems merciless when insulting his sister (younger).  When I probe him as to why, he explains that she is too full of herself, or something of that nature.  I will say, how would you feel if she talked to you like that.  Well, she wouldn’t have to because I wouldn’t act like that.  This is the part I am at a loss with.  Any suggestions?

    • Empowering Parents Coach drowden Report

      It can be quite upsetting when one sibling disparages the other
      and it can be tough to know what the best response to such remarks would be. As
      Debbie Pincus points out in her article…, it’s not uncommon for siblings
      to treat each other badly. This doesn’t mean your son’s behavior should go
      unchecked, however. One thing I think might be helpful is to switch more of the
      focus to his behavior itself, instead of trying to figure out why he’s doing
      it.  After all, he can have whatever opinion of his sister he wants. Even
      if he doesn’t like her, it doesn’t mean it’s OK for him to say mean, hurtful
      things to her. To that end, having a problem-solving conversation coupled with
      task-oriented consequences may be an effective way of curbing this behavior.
      For example, instead of asking him why he insults his sister, you can
      ask him what he’s trying to accomplish with that behavior. You can find
      more tips for having a problem-solving conversation with your son in this
      article by Sara Bean:….
      As I mentioned earlier, a task-oriented consequence is a good way of holding
      your son accountable when he does insult his sister. What this may look like in
      your situation is loss of an electronics privilege, maybe computer or video
      game time, until he can go for a certain amount of time without saying mean
      things to his sister. You want to be mindful of your son’s age when
      implementing this type of consequence and also his ability level. It’s usually
      more effective to start out with shorter time periods, a couple to a few hours,
      and work your way up from there. I hope this information is useful for your
      situation. Be sure to check back and let us know how things are going. Take

  2. Mandy Report

    This was a wonderful read and very helpful. My 9 year old is a very sweet little girl. She is helpful and kind and gentle… and somehow all of that flew out the window today at school. She buckled beneath peer pressure when one friend made the executive decision that they would no longer be friends with another little girl- who happens to be my daughter’s best friend. I was stunned that my daughter went along with it and even more upset that (until I pointed out to her) it never occurred to her how her actions made her little bff feel! I want so badly to help her to understand that friendship is more than just who you play with at recess and sit with at lunch, and that being a good friend is as important as having good friends. Thanks for helping me define for myself how I want to talk with her about thi.s

  3. Tired Report

    It saddens my heart when I hear about children being bullyed in school. I’m an ex-officer with a degree in Criminal Justice and a minor in Psychology. So I have seen it all. Now I’m teaching in the school system and I see this all the time. It starts in the household. Moms and dads need to spend more time with their children and set some morals and a foundation for them.

    People have said that a single family home is the worst to raise a child and at times single families have the highest percentage of problem children. I disagree with that. I’m a single mother of 2 girls and I have wonderful and loving children. I have installed morals within my household for my girls to live by. I may work alot, but I find the time to do things with my children. Parents need to interact more within the schools and stay active. This is so inportant. Once again it starts in the household.

    Kids today are so angry and this is why they end up in the streets and in jail.

  4. dlmiller1054 Report

    As a child I learned early to have empathy for others. You see I had a brother that was paralyzed from his chest down. I was raised in an enviornment that demanded that we understand that we truly are our brothers keepers. This goes beyond our immediate families. I believe that it is our duty to protect and nourish anyone that is less fortunate than ourselves. Thank you for re-enforcing those emotions. And thank you for teaching this to your children. I think this can be contagious!!

  5. Dr. Joan Munson Report

    To Kelly McNeil:

    What a good question! I would give two choices to your child. First, I would say back to them: “How would you feel if someone hit you or stepped on your foot for any reason?” If they have no response or say they would just want to hit back, I would lay down the consequence pretty quickly of what would happen if they did that. In my house, it would sound something like: “Well, I would sure hope you wouldn’t hit or step on someone, but if you did, you can bet you wouldn’t be….(Fill in the blank here: no videos, no play station, no play dates, etc.) for two weeks. So, we might want to come up with a better response than what you just said” Bear in mind that kids often love to say they would do something mean just to taunt us, to see how we’ll respond. I’d keep my cool and not buy into it.

  6. kelley mcneil Report

    what would you do if you asked them what would you do if ??? and your child says I would hit them back or step on their foot back?

  7. Annie Report

    Thanks for the great advice on getting kids to truly empathize with others. This is a critical life lesson for children of all ages!

  8. Carrie Report

    Your story brought tears to my eyes as well. I am so excited that your 11yr old had the insite and courage(?) to invite the autistic boy to join him for lunch. It takes alot of gall to do something publically that will put you under the scrutiny of your peers. I know that this will be a life changing event for your son(even if he doesnt recognize right now)and to the boy who now has a table full of new friends! Strenghths will be given to everyone and they problably wont even recognize it! God bless all who are involved!

  9. Randi Report

    Dr. Joan – I love your suggestion of putting your kids in the other kids shoes – how it got them to think of how they’d want others to help. Great perspective on how it’s not enough to not do this behavior, but to reach out and help their peers, when they see it happening. Thanks for all your insights – I love your blog!

  10. Allison B Report

    Dr. Joan:

    I love your suggestions for re-framing questions in a way that kids will understand. This article gave me some great tips about how to talk to MY kids about empathy and empathic behavior. The actions of your “introspective” older son brought tears to my eyes. So nice to see the fruits of our labors!

  11. barbara Report

    What you have taught your children has Empowered them
    into making decisions that other children would only
    think about. Your sons decision to ask the autistic
    child to join him and his friends at their lunch table
    has shown leadership, and his friends will eventually
    look up to him.

  12. Elisabeth Report

    Dr. Joan: Thanks for talking about something that seems so lacking these days, in children and adults — Empathy. Do you have any other suggestions for ways you can teach it to your children?
    PS I’m going to put up that saying in our kitchen, too! “Treat others as you wish to be treated.” It ain’t the golden rule for nothing!

  13. Lora Report

    Dr. Joan,
    What a wonderful picture of an ideal discussion and resolution.

    I have three adopted children who were abused, abandoned and then spent 4 1/2 years in an orphanage in Brazil. They are among the lucky ones. They were 5,8 and 11 when I got them. They are surprisingly kind and generous but we have a huge challenge with empathy. It never mattered how they felt. They were never asked how they felt. They often still don’t know how they feel, let alone someone else. And when they do know how a person might feel, it just doesn’t matter. That’s just how it is. They are too accepting of the evil in the world and we have had to work very hard at building a vocabulary of what is right and acceptable and what is not, so they know what to stand up against.

    This article certainly touched a nerve and I only wish my children could know your children! Please give them a hug from me. Blessings on you all.

  14. Joan Report

    Dr. Joan,
    I think you’re right on discussing empathy with your children. Besides teaching them to feel for others they are empowered to step up and take action when they see someone being treated poorly. There is not enough of that in this world.


  15. Cornelius Farmer Report

    I found Dr Joan’s blogs very interesting and frankly very insightful. It’s refreshing to read from someone who is so in touch with the issues parent face today. I wonder aloud what role our environment plays in determining how kids respond to bullying. Is the way children react to bullying dependent on what they are exposed to? For example; do inappropriate movies or television promote bullying or aggressive behavior? As a parent of three myself I am always looking for helpful advise and look forward to future articles !!

  16. Vickie Report

    We have a son on the autism spectrum. The bullying he may one day face is a HUGE fear of ours. We are trying to teach him coping skills, but Real Life will be very tough.
    The cure for bullying is, of course, other kids stepping in and telling the bully he is not cool. But that seldom happens – it’s too much to expect from a lot of children, especially shy ones.
    Your oldest son’s response made me cry! That is exactly what we hope will happen for our beautiful son; that another child will have empathy and include him when others in the group ostracize him. It could make a lot of the pain of teasing and bullying go away.

  17. Allison Report

    Dr. Joan,
    What I most appreciated about this article is how you gave a firsthand account of the dialog you used with your children to teach them about empathy. Very helpful and insightful.

  18. Dara Report

    Dr. Joan,
    I really enjoyed your article about empathy. As a mother who has a son with autism, this article really hit home. It brought tears to my eyes, when I read that your son invited the boy with autism to sit at his lunch table. You have done your job well!!


  19. Julie Report

    Thanks for the reminder about empathy, Dr. Joan. I think we don’t teach our kids about this enough. BTW, I’ve been enjoying your articles on young kids in EP–speaking as a single mom of a 4 year old daughter, they’ve been a godsend!



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