• Teach your child how to show sympathy

Marvett Feare-Sterling


Persons, including children, killed in cold blood and accident victims are being photographed and shared. Is this merely using the available technology or are we becoming a cold and callous people? When young men use their useful and strong years to scam old ladies of their life savings and their parents celebrate their ‘newfound wealth’, evidence is provided that, as a nation, our emotions are hardened and no one is safe. How do you then help your child to stop by an accident scene only to offer help and assist the victims instead of out of the desire for a photo opportunity? How do you teach your child to be sad when his friend dies?


Some persons think of empathy as a fixed trait- a talent that some people are born with, and others lack. Empathy, however, is not a single ability or skill and can be taught to those who lack this very important trait (Dewar, G, 2017). When we talk about empathy, Dr. Dewar, in her article Teaching empathy: Evidence-based tips for fostering empathy in children, pointed out that we are not talking only about feeling sorry for someone who is hurting. Empathy also includes what Jean Decety and Jason Cowell (2014) identified as emotional sharing, empathic concern and perspective-taking.

Emotional sharing, also called “emotional contagion,” occurs when we experience feelings of distress as a result of observing another individual in distress. Empathic concern describes the motivation to care for individuals who are vulnerable or distressed, and Perspective-taking is the “ability to consciously put oneself in the mind of another individual and imagine what that person is thinking or feeling.”

Some persons may have all three, while others may have these traits in varying degrees. Children will usually show higher levels of emotional sharing than empathic concern and will struggle with perspective taking. This will improve as they get older, and as parents or caregivers provide them with opportunities to practice.

Children need to be taught when and how to show empathic concern as well as helped to understand their own emotions. The opportunities provided by parents and caregivers might lead to enhanced empathy for others, or the reverse. Children may learn to show more responsiveness and caring, or less.

A few things children should learn about empathy: Children are not born with all they need to know and parents and the environment play a significant role in teaching them important life skills. We should help our child to understand that empathy requires an open-mind, and an effort to learn how differently others experience the world. They should learn that empathy sometimes involve embracing instead of shutting out unpleasant feelings associated with seeing people in distress. Children need to learn how to control their personal reactions so they can respond with sympathy and help. They should learn practical, concrete actions to take when someone is in trouble, and that empathy is not to be reserved for a select few, but  for individuals from every walk of life.


Dr. Dewar, however, suggested ten strategies that we adopt as we teach our children empathy.

Feeling someone else’s pain is unpleasant, so it should not surprise us if a child’s first impulse is to shrink away. Children are more likely to overcome this impulse when they feel secure, and have strong self-regulation skills. Dr. Dewar suggest that we become emotional coaches for our young children by acknowledging (rather than dismissing) children’s negative feelings, and engaging them in conversation about the causes and effects of emotions. It also means helping children find constructive ways to handle their bad moods.

Parents are encouraged to seize everyday opportunities to model and induce sympathetic feelings for other people. If you observe someone in distress, in real life or on TV, Dr. Dewar advised that parents use the opportunity to talk to the child about how that person must feel. A brief conversation might have an effect. We can also help children to realize what they have in common with other people.


When we feel another’s pain, our bodies literally experience pain and our own emotions can distract us from accurately judging what a victim really needs as we focus on our pain. Fictional stories and real-life narratives offer excellent opportunities for teaching empathy and sharpening a child’s perspective-taking skills. Ask, “What do the characters think, believe, want, or feel? And how do we know it? When we actively discuss these questions, children may learn a lot about the way other people’s minds work (Dunn et al 2001). Other strategies include helping children learn how to read facial expressions and, helping children to develop a sense of morality that depends on internal self-control and not on rewards and punishments. Parents are encouraged to emphasize rational explanations and moral consequences, and not arbitrary rules and heavy-handed punishments.

Our environment, including the media, has produced a constant diet of cold, callous and scary images of not just person’s actions towards each other, but of people’s response. Our children’s emotions will be impacted. Take the steps to grow your child into an empathetic human being!

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