When Do Kids Learn Empathy Age-Specific Strategies

When Do Kids Develop Empathy? In general, there is no clear answer to this question, making it quite challenging. Discover more about education that fosters empathy by reading on.

It’s never too late to start, even though the best empathy-building experiences happen during infancy. Infants and toddlers pick up the most from how their parents handle their irritability, fear, or upset. When a child is in preschool, you can start having conversations with them about other people’s feelings.

Please read on.

Age-Specific Strategies

Some tactics for fostering empathy in kids, according to their age, are listed below. The age ranges listed below are merely a general guide; begin with a few activities or concepts that you believe will appeal to your child. In later years, some of the activities that are first introduced to younger kids may continue.

3-5 Years

Describe and label.

Describe and label emotions to aid children in understanding their own and other people’s feelings (e.g., “You seem angry,” or, “Are you feeling sad?”).

Additionally, you can encourage body awareness because young children might find it simpler to recognize emotions based on how something makes them feel physically.

For instance, you might say, “Your fists are clenched. Your feet were stamped. You seem angry.” Children who are more conscious of their own emotions are better able to identify and take into account the emotions of others.

Read Stories.

Ask your child what the fictional characters in the stories might be feeling as you read aloud to them.

Here’s one example from our list of 29 Books and Activities That Teach Kindness to Children:

“Listening with My Heart” by Gabi Garcia tells the tale of Esperanza, who discovers self-compassion when things don’t go according to plan. You can ask your child questions like:

  • What emotions does Esperanza have at the start of the narrative? Throughout the narrative, how does Esperanza’s emotional state change?
  • What emotions does Bao have at the story’s beginning? Bao’s emotions—how do they evolve?
  • When Esperanza bolted from the stage, how did she feel?
  • What would you say to Esperanza if you could speak with her after she left the stage?
  • Think about how you would feel if it happened to you. After that encounter, what do you want someone to say to you?
  • How does Esperanza treat herself well?
  • What can you do to make yourself a better friend?

You can also read about and discuss how it feels when others are mean with the book “Chrysanthemum” by In Kevin Henkes, Chrysanthemum loves her distinctive name—until people start making fun of it.

“The Day the Crayons Quit” by Another excellent book for bringing up emotions with young kids is Drew Daywalt. The only thing Duncan wants to do in this vivid tale is color. Unfortunately, his crayons are on strike. Beige is consistently passed over for Brown, Black only receives outline treatment, Orange and Yellow disagree over which is the true hue of the sun, and so on.

You can have a conversation with kids about how the crayons (and Duncan) are feeling as Duncan tries to figure out how to make all of his crayons happy. This is a good opportunity to emphasize that everyone has different needs, aspirations, and goals, and that it can be challenging to reach consensus on these matters.

Almost any story that your child enjoys can be approached in a similar way!

Make a “We Care Center”.

Conscious Discipline creator Dr. Becky Bailey suggests creating a We Care Center to help kids learn empathy.

A box containing Kleenex, Band-Aids, and a small stuffed animal can serve as the We Care Center. Children can express empathy for those who are suffering through this in a symbolic way.

For instance, a young child might notice that Mom is crying or even sneezing and offer tissues.

This instills in kids a sense of empathy and the knowledge that our reactions and actions can have a positive influence.

We can also model this relationship with statements like, “Our neighbors are ill. Bring them some soup so they can feel better!” or, “Your brother got an elbow scrape. Bring him some Band-Aids and let’s help!”

In the present, encourage social skills.

If your child snatches her brother’s toy, ask questions like, “What do you suppose your brother is feeling? What do you think about when your brother steals your toys? Look at his face; he appears dejected. What else could we do besides take your brother’s toy?”

At this point, you could teach a more suitable response to want a toy, like asking for a turn, making a trade, or playing with another toy while waiting. When social skills are taught in a context, kids find it much simpler to learn them.

When Do Kids Learn Empathy Age-Specific Strategies
When Do Kids Learn Empathy? Age-Specific Strategies

5-7 Years

Play the emotion charades.

Empathy development in children can be facilitated by teaching emotions through play. The language needed to express and comprehend complex emotions can be taught to kids through games and activities.

Play “emotion charades” by having players take turns acting out various emotions while attempting to identify the one being portrayed. After a player has guessed correctly, you can also discuss the emotion with questions like:

  • When do you feel sad?
  • When you’re sad, what makes you feel better?
  • When someone is depressed, how can we support them?

The Where Imagination Grows blog’s Lisette offers a helpful modification to this game. She illustrates various emotions with the help of the Inside Out characters.

Each character is glued to an index card after she cuts out their images. Following that, the performer acts out that emotion using an index card that was drawn from a bucket. The other children hold up the corresponding Inside Out character figurine to guess the emotion.

Use pictures.

Visual aids are yet another fantastic method for teaching kids. Cut out images of sad, angry, or happy faces from magazines or print images from the Internet if your child appears to have difficulty identifying and/or labeling emotions. You can gradually progress to more difficult feelings like fear, embarrassment, disappointment, frustration, etc.

You can ask kids about times they experienced similar emotions as you talk about how the people in the pictures are feeling. Give personal examples to illustrate that even adults experience strong emotions, and that this is completely normal.

Embrace diversity.

Respecting people from different backgrounds is a key aspect of empathy.

Give your child the chance to play with kids of various racial backgrounds, skill levels, sexes, and other characteristics. You can read books or watch television programs that feature kids who aren’t like your own. Educate kids about their shared traits with others and encourage them to think about them.

Observe others.

Playing a game where you watch other people in a crowded public space, like a park, will help your child gain a deeper understanding of nonverbal cues.

Observe others’ body language to make an educated guess as to how they may be feeling. “His shoulders are rounded, and he has a drooping head. He might be depressed, I think. Why does he feel that way, do you think?”

Establish sound boundaries and limits.

As they get older, it’s critical that your kids learn that having empathy doesn’t mean adopting the issues and demands of everyone around them. It doesn’t mean always saying “yes” or dropping everything to help others.

Utilizing these three steps, you can teach your kids to recognize and respect their own needs.

  1. Make a plan for how you want your child to react in various situations. If, for example, another child gives an unwanted hug, your child can say, “Please don’t touch me; I don’t like that.” If a child calls your child a name, your child can say, “Call me by that name instead; my name is ________.”
  2. Make a list of situations, such as when a child won’t accept no as an answer or whenever something feels unsafe or uncomfortable, where it is necessary to ask an adult for assistance. Tell your child that helping others should not entail breaking any rules or engaging in activities that they find uncomfortable.
  3. Be mindful of your child’s boundaries. Avoid pressuring your child if he or she dislikes being tickled or wants to be picked up and spun around. Say, “I realize what I did, and I won’t repeat it.” This models the way your child should expect others to behave when he or she says “no.”

Don’t forget to download our FREE 21-Day Family Gratitude Challenge and make this challenge a part of your family’s routine!

7-9 Years

Educate yourself on the subject of fictional people in books.

Discuss the characters’ thoughts, beliefs, wants, and feelings in depth by reading more complex books. How do we know?

For example, read “The Invisible Boy” by Brian, a young boy, struggles with feeling invisible in the novel Trudy Ludwig. He is never included in games or invited to parties. Brian is the first to welcome a new student named Justin when he arrives. Brian finds a way to stand out when the boys collaborate on a class project. The book teaches kids that doing little deeds of kindness can make kids feel included and help them grow.

After reading, ask questions like:

  • Brian wondered why he felt invisible.
  • How do you think being “invisible” makes Brian feel?
  • Brian’s efforts to make Justin feel at home
  • How did Justin help Brian feel more “visible?”
  • Has it ever felt like you were invisible or excluded? What could have made you feel more visible or a part of things?

110 schoolchildren (aged seven) were enrolled in a reading program for one experimental study. Randomly chosen students were asked to participate in discussions about the emotional content of the stories they read. Others were only asked to create drawings that accompanied the stories.

After two months, the kids in the conversation group showed greater advances in emotion comprehension, the theory of mind, and empathy, and the positive outcomes “remained stable for six months.”

Choose children’s books that are specifically about empathy to read with them. As an alternative, pay attention to what your kids are reading and have discussions with them about the characters, their feelings, and what your kid might think, feel, or do in similar circumstances.

compassion and loving-kindness meditation.

According to studies, practicing compassion and kindness meditations for as little as two weeks can alter brain chemistry in a way that increases empathy and other good social behaviors. Along with enhancing one’s health, these meditations also increase feelings of positivity and social connectedness.

Thinking of loved ones and sending them good vibes are part of loving-kindness meditation. Later, your child can extend her optimistic thoughts to other, more impartial people in her life.

The four traditional phrases for this meditation are, “Wishing you happiness and safety. I wish you good health and a comfortable life.” It doesn’t matter what words you and your child use precisely; the important thing is to instill feelings of warmth and kindness in others.

Children who have received compassion training can visualize sad or upsetting moments in their lives and then relate to those moments in a kind and caring way. They then repeat the exercise with different people, starting with close family members, moving on to a challenging individual, and concluding by showing compassion for all people.

Play cooperative board games or work together to build something.

According to research, our willingness to cooperate increases as a result of our positive interactions with others. Children can be encouraged to develop positive relationships and to be open to forming more in the future by working together.

Children are taught to consider different perspectives through discussions and debates that are a part of these experiences.

Ideas for cooperative board games or cooperative construction include:

  • Play with Legos, working together to build something specific
  • Race to the Treasure!(a board game in which children collaborate to build a path and beat an ogre to the treasure)
  • Outfoxed! (a cooperative whodunit game)
  • Stone Soup(an award-winning cooperative matching game)
  • The Secret Door(a mystery board game in which children ages 5+ work together to solve the mystery behind the secret door)

9-11 Years

Enroll in acting lessons.

Encourage your kid to join acting or theater groups if they interest him. A great way to develop empathy is to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, just as pretend play encourages young children to understand and care about others.

Create empathy maps.

Empathy maps include four sections: Feel, Think, Say, and Do. Choose a feeling, then consider what you might say, consider, and do at that time.

For example: “When I’m anxious, I might believe that I’m making a lot of mistakes or that something negative is about to occur. I apologize or say “I can’t do this” too frequently.’ I don’t do anything at all when I’m anxious sometimes. I can help myself by taking deep breaths and telling myself that everything will be fine.”

If the topic arises, emphasize how sometimes what we say or do is the complete opposite of how we feel. You can talk about the reasons for this and how they relate to displaying empathy and understanding for other people.

Ages 12+

talk about recent events.

By reading newspapers, news magazines, or watching the news together, you can gain knowledge of current affairs and foster empathy. As an alternative, you could complete this activity whenever your kid brings up a current event to you.

Ask questions like:

  • How might the parties concerned be feeling at this time?
  • In a similar situation, how would you feel?
  • Are there any steps we can take to assist?

Your child should be encouraged to choose volunteer work.

Support your child in picking a cause for which they are passionate about doing volunteer work. As kids grow older, they are able to contribute more directly to their local community or society as a whole. To address a issue they are passionate about, they might even want to start their own initiatives or charitable organizations.

Children should venture outside of their immediate environment. Our Big Life Journal - Teen Editionincludes a section where older kids can write down and map out ways they can make a difference in the world. With these interests, they can create chances to give back to their local communities.

Walk the line.

This activity is ideal for classrooms, summer camps, or other locations with a sizable number of older kids or teens. “Walk the Line” was demonstrated in the movie Freedom Writers.

Students should face the taped lines on each side of the group as you place it in the center. Observe the statements that follow. The student goes to the line and stands there if the statement is accurate for them.

This could include statements like “I’ve lost a family member,” “I’ve been bullied at school,” and so on. The prompts can be developed with the assistance of the students.

They gain understanding of their peers’ experiences and feelings by participating in an activity that highlights the struggles they all share. Students go back to their seats after the activity to reflect in writing or in a group discussion.

One option is to have students write a letter to a student who walked to the line on one of the prompts they moved on (that they can deliver or keep to themselves), sharing more about this experience or encouraging them.

Empathy is a skill that can be learned and developed over time, and it will provide your child with a solid foundation on which to build good judgment, success, and wholesome relationships throughout their life. Start by picking one or two things from this list.

Strategies to Help Increase Empathy in Our Children

Below are additional strategies to help increase empathy in our children:

Model It

As stated, our goal is to set an example for appropriate and sympathetic responses to everyday circumstances. We can also design situations where we identify when we are feeling excited and then express our excitement. When we are teaching empathy, it is crucial to pay attention to all types of emotional situations and not just sad ones. Another important note here is to model coping strategies for your child from a young age. If you share that you are sad about something, you can show them that crying is okay and then perhaps ask for a hug. Though there are ways to self-regulate and self-soothe, we want our children to understand that their feelings are always important and valid.

Teach It

A great way to teach your child is to show them a scenario and then ask them “what happened” and “what do you feel”. You could ask your child to describe a scene if you show them a picture of a girl sobbing because her ice cream spilled on the ground. After that, inquire as to their reaction if it happened to them or a friend. Depending on your child’s age, it’s possible to help them see why another person would feel a certain way by looking for “clues” in the scene. The scenario should be as realistic as possible. You may be able to apply it to the child’s own life as well.


A great way to encourage your children to develop empathy is to expose them to situations where they are conscious of others who are in need. The beauty of helping others can be demonstrated to children by having them volunteer at an animal shelter or deliver some homemade cookies to a nursing home. We also want to ensure that our child increases their coping skills and self-regulation after an emotional encounter and understands how to create boundaries. If we are always thinking about how we can help others, it might leave us feeling spent and worn out. Show your child an example of how to take a break from taking care of others. After a day spent being more empathic, ask them what they would like to do to feel calm, content, and relaxed.

Conclusion on When Do Kids Learn Empathy

Even though the most effective empathy training starts in infancy, it’s never too late to begin. When their parents are irritable, frightened, or upset, babies and toddlers pick up on their behavior the most. You can start bringing up other people’s feelings when your child is in kindergarten.

To empathize with someone is to comprehend his feelings, or more accurately, to comprehend your own feelings if you were in his shoes. Even though it is much more complicated, it is an extension of self-concept. It necessitates being conscious of the fact that other people have thoughts and perceptions of themselves that are both similar to and dissimilar to your own, and that these other people also have feelings related to those feelings and perceptions.

In contrast to intelligence and physical attractiveness, which are largely inherited traits, empathy is a skill that kids can learn. It has numerous benefits. Empathic kids typically perform better academically, socially, and in their adult careers. The most empathetic children and teenagers are seen as leaders by their fellow students. Parents are the best people to teach their children that skill.

I appreciate you reading.

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