Living with a child who doesn’t seem to empathise with others – to care or be aware how anyone else feels, even if they are hurt or upset – can be very distressing for the whole family.
A child who doesn’t empathise can appear to be callous, and may alienate friends. You may worry that he’ll never have a happy social life, or that he may harm others because he doesn’t understand they have feelings too.
Nature and nurture
The good news is that psychologists seem to agree that all children are born with the potential to empathise… although some will need more help to develop it.
A child’s upbringing and early life experiences are a crucial influence: research shows that those who are disciplined with physical force and subjected to threats and verbal abuse are likely to be less empathic.
12 ways to help your child develop empathy
- Play with babies and toddlers: pull faces to get them to imitate your expressions, or take their toy, then give it back to them.
- Give your children plenty of love, time and attention. Talk to them, encourage them to express themselves and really listen to what they have to say. Try to understand how they feel and show that you understand, for example: ‘That must have made you feel really sad’.
- Model empathic behaviour and explain what you’re doing: ‘Tom fell over and hurt his knee, so I’m giving him a cuddle to make him feel better’.
- Use role play to diffuse tricky situations such as conflict between siblings. Make it easier by switching roles with your child.
- Teach your children the importance of right and wrong.
- Go back to basics and explain in very simple words how your child has made you feel if he upsets or hurts you.
- Set family rules, such as ‘no hurting or hating’.
- Help your children learn to share.
- Watch films and read books with your children that demonstrate empathy, and then discuss them: ‘How do you think the boy in the film felt when his friends wouldn’t play with him?’ Limiting your children’s exposure to films that involve violence and aggression is also helpful.
- Encourage your kids to show they care about other people. Praise all acts of kindness and compassion.
- Discipline them fairly and consistently, without resorting to physical punishment.
- Get a pet: sharing responsibility for an animal’s welfare is a great way to foster empathy.
Now tell us what worked for you…
Have you had to work to develop your child’s levels of empathy? Share your tips with other parents…