Building Empathy in Our Children

In school, our children are focused on learning facts, how to do math, and how to write. This type of intelligence helps propel them forward in school, earning high grades and college acceptances. But…what if IQ alone isn’t enough to make your child successful in life?

Emotional Intelligence (EQ) is the awareness of one’s feelings and the feelings of others. It is the ability to understand and manage one’s emotions and utilize this knowledge to connect with others. Empathy is a central element in EQ.

In the 2017 Highlights State of the Kid™ survey, Highlights asked 2,000 kids ages 6 to 12 what it means to “put yourself in another person’s shoes,” and 67 percent of responders understood the idea of empathy (with only 14 percent, higher among younger kids, responding that they did not know). This is promising news!  So, as adults, how do we continue to encourage empathy in our children?

Parents and other trusted adults are the main sources of information in a child’s life. We are the role models, and as such we can start the empathy conversation by displaying an awareness of our own feelings. Children are not born with an innate ability to name a feeling and connect that to an action or experience. But we can help teach them. When rushing to work in the morning, let your child know, “I am worried about getting to work on time, and I am sad that we don’t have time to play a little longer.”  When we make a mistake, like forgetting something at the store, we can tell our child, “I am mad at myself for forgetting the milk at the store, and I am frustrated that we will have to go back.” This allows your child to recognize feelings and the situations that cause them, the first step in building empathy.

You can also start a dialogue when you see your child having a feeling. For example, “It seems that you are feeling sad/mad/frustrated. Am I right?” Starting the conversation about your child’s feelings provides an opportunity to validate his experience and can lead to brainstorming possible solutions and/or coping skills. Identify. Validate. Implement skills. Let your child know that a feeling is never wrong. Though once we are able to identify it, we can then choose how to move forward. Do we need to take an action? Do we need a distraction? Helping your child identify what he may need in response to his feelings can make a situation seem more manageable.

We don’t always have to be focused on the less favorable emotions either. We can ask our children how it felt when they earned a special award in class or when a friend asked them for a playdate. Encourage recognition of feelings such as pride, happiness, and contentment.

The next step is connecting this knowledge with respect of feelings toward others. A great way to start is by sitting with your child as she watches a movie or a television show. Talk to her about how a character may be feeling, why she might be feeling that way, and what might help her in the moment. Using real-life examples is also a perfect way to teach children how to observe others in a nonjudgmental and open way.  

Creating a loving and safe environment for your children will allow them the space to explore their emotional process and in the end, be better equipped to connect and respond emotionally with others.

Sasha L. Ribic, Psy.D.


Sasha L. Ribic, Psy.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist in Columbus, Ohio. She provides psychotherapy for children, adolescents, and adults, and provides varied psychoeducational programs and parenting seminars within Central Ohio.