7 Tips for Teaching Empathy

It’s easy to sit back and be all Judgy McJudgerson at the state of affairs that is our world… It can kinda suck and it’s WAY easier to point fingers and lay blame… 

And we do.

Far too often.

{At least I do.}

I see it on Facebook ALL. THE. TIME.

{And in real life… as if the two were somehow separate…}

See a parent who states that her kids won’t eat veggies?  Let’s grab the pitchforks and blame her for not exposing her kids to enough choices in foods… Heaven forbid we consider the possibility that some pallets just don’t like the taste or texture of veggies.

See a teen who is constantly in trouble at school or getting into fights?  Let’s just assume he’s a “bad seed” and give up on him/her instead of trying to find out the real reason for the behavior.  It’s easier.

Hear that a dad has primary custody of his children?  Let’s just assume that the mom is a “bad mom”instead of hearing the rest of the story…

We do it without even realizing just how often we judge others with only partial information to inform our decisions… and I’m just as guilty as the next guy/gal… 

but what the world needs more of, is empathy. empathy The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

Not to be confused with sympathy.  

When you sympathize with another person, you feel compassion for them but don’t really understand their feelings.  

Empathy is when you truly understand what the other person is going through.

frame_empathyAnd it’s not easy.  It’s hard and takes work.

Empathy can be painful… to experience another’s pain or joy as though it were your own.

Sympathy is easier… simply feeling sorry for the other person…  to feel bad for them… 

In my experience though, and I’ve said this before, people do the best they can based on where they are. I like to believe that about people.

I further believe that when we truly understand where someone is coming from and the situations and experiences that led them to a particular cross road, it’s easier to understand their choices.  

That doesn’t mean I agree with them or support bad decisions, but I can understand where they were coming from. It’s a skill I want my kids to have and we are being given lots of opportunities to practice empathy lately.

How to raise empathetic children

  • Talk about feelings

I’m learning that my boys struggle with how to put their feelings into words.  I like to think they aren’t alone in this struggle… Hell – I know plenty of grown ass adults who struggle here.  When we changed the Giant’s meds the last time, and I asked him how he felt, the best he could come up with was “I feel weird.”  Not altogether inaccurate, but not as helpful as I needed.  It dawned on me that we needed to begin with exploring various feelings.

  • Be honest about your own feelings

This one is hard for me.  Oh sure, I’m good at feeling the feels, and I’m good at over analyzing… but to analyze WHY I feel a particular feeling and then explaining that to anyone not in my brain is harder.  

The funny thing though is that I hear a lot of parents do this already… in part.  They explain the negative emotions in great detail to their children.

“I’m frustrated right now because you aren’t listening to me”

“I’m angry because you failed your spelling test.”

But what about the POSITIVE emotions we feel?  Those deserve to be shared and explained as well.

“I’m proud of you because you walked away from a conflict.”

“I’m happy because I like spending time with you.”

  •  Teach them how to listen

Far too often we don’t really listen.  Oh sure, we can sit silently while another person speaks, but we are more often waiting for our turn to talk without truly hearing what they are saying… and when it comes to our kids, well, we don’t always hear what they are trying to say.

There was a situation a few weeks back where a bully was picking on my Giant.  {Let’s not get into the ridiculousness of ANYONE picking on my 6″2′ 225 lbs Giant} His actions said far more than he could express in words… a realization I came to only after the situation had been resolved.  As parents we have to learn how to listen to more than the words that they are saying if we are going to teach them how to listen to others… or themselves.

  • Validate your children’s feelings

When you validate that your child is not wrong for how they feel, you teach them that their feelings matter.  I believe that when we teach them that their feelings matter, they translate that to an understanding that someone else’s feelings matter too.

Feelings are feelings and they are not “good” or “bad.”  They just are.  It’s what you do with your feelings that define your character in so many cases.

  • Encourage Curiosity

Evin posted yesterday about the questions that her kids ask and one in particular stood out to me. 

“Why are those people walking?” (Because they’re exercising)

What I love about that question is the underlying desire for her minions to wonder why people are doing the things they do.  Understanding the motives behind someone’s actions give us valuable insight to what they may be going through.

  • Include Empathy as part of your Reward/Disciple practices

Catch your kids doing good – and recognize when they are thinking of others and being empathetic.

Likewise, talk with empathy instead of anger when doling out disciplines.  By including information around how your child’s actions affect others, it forces everyone to think beyond just the “you did something wrong” conversation.  

  • Be Patient

As with anything, there’s no such thing as perfection or immediate results.  Be patient with your child while they learn a new skill just as you were once patient with them when they were learning to walk.  And… be patient with yourself.  You won’t likely be perfect at this either. And that too is okay.

Ultimately, I don’t have all the answers… but I do think that if we step into another’s shoes and see things from their perspective, it’s harder to judge them.  And while the world needs more empathy, it definitely needs LESS judgement.


*** This has been a Finish the Sentence Friday post, where writers and bloggers gather to give their own takes on the week’s sentence. This one was “The world needs more…”
Hosted by: Kristi from Finding Ninee and co-hosted by Me (duh) and Anna 



  1. Amen, sister!!! I couldn’t agree more!! My son has been bullied repeatedly for a year, and while he has great support in standing up for himself, it’s so hard to see. What I’m proud of though is that he refuses to be mean back. “That’s just not kind, Mom.” I think he knows that the mean kid is probably just not real happy inside. Thank you!

  2. Huge lessons here. The one that really struck a chord with me is that parents need to listen to more than the words of our children. We do need to listen to more than what they are saying. It’s difficult to slow down, stop and simply listen but the rewards are endless. My two are now 19 and 21 and I’m still trying to remember to do that.

  3. You have so many good things here, I hardly know where to start in my comment. When I was growing up, my mom would always ask me, “How would that make you feel?” when we were discussing the situations of others. She opened my eyes to looking at things from another’s perspective. Though I didn’t always want to do that, she calmly and patiently instilled within me the idea that I needed to consider the feelings of others. It sounds like you are doing a good job of that with your own children.

  4. Hi Shelley: I really enjoyed your post. I’m just starting to learn about you, and your voice, but I found so many pearls in your discussion of empathy. You’re right: empathy is very hard. We have to make a serious effort to understand those around us to engage in empathy. Empathy is a lot of work. But if we can succeed in being empathetic — and more importantly teaching our kids how to be empathetic — wow, what a difference that can make in our lives and the lives of those around us!

  5. Shelley, are you familiar with the 1000 Voices Speak for Compassion group? I think your post would fit so wonderfully with our focus on writing about and promoting compassion. Check out our Facebook group here https://www.facebook.com/groups/1000Speak/.
    I’d love to share this post with the group – or even better, have you join us and share it yourself! You can email or message me any time.

    • I was NOT familiar until now and have JUST submitted a request to join the group! Thank you so much for sharing – it looks like a wonderful group for sure!

  6. Shelley, this is beautiful and timely for me. We are going through a bit of this “walk in another person’s shoes” with our daughter right now, trying to teach her how to recognize when other people are treating her in an unkind manner and to take how she feels about it and use that to help motivate her in the opposite direction – to always think about how her actions affect another. Yes, we need more empathy. Definitely.

    • I’m glad that this post reached you in a timely manner… it’s timely in our house as well. I’m struggling to teach my teens some of the things listed and I’ll have you know I’m FAR from perfect… but trying 🙂 Thanks so much for stopping by and taking the time to comment! Means so very much!

  7. Crap. I spelled your name wrong! I’m so sorry ShellEy!! You can edit it if you are able!!

    • You’d be surprised how little I care about the spelling of my name and how full my heart is that you took time to comment 🙂 thank you!!

  8. Oh Shelly, I absolutely LOVE this post!! YES to it ALL!!!

    Such great insight and wisdom here… for both adults and parents!! Sharing… pinning…tweeting….:)

  9. What a wonderful, powerful post. You put so much thought into this. I love how you clarify the differences between empathy and sympathy. Nailed it. I’m going to have to print this one out and read it more slowly later today.

  10. YES! Yes yes to empathy. I really related to you saying that it’s easier to express feelings than it is to dig into and express the reasons why we feel what we feel. I was also really sorry to read that your Giant was bullied. My son was recently bullied on the bus and GRRRR but (!) I really did try and have empathy for the kid who bullied. I don’t know what life looks like in his home.
    Great post and thank you so much for co-hosting Finish the Sentence with me and Anna!

    • Thanks so much for the opportunity!! I hate that there are bullies…. But more so I hate that there are children who feel the need to bully even if they don’t understand what leads them down that path.

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