My Child Doesn’t Seem to Have Empathy


How can I help my child to learn to care for others?

MOLLY: This came from a reader based in Florida.

Dr. Susan Rutherford (Molly’s Mom): One of the ways you can help a child learn the process of giving empathy or what empathy looks like is either by using instances that have to do with you (but you have to be careful with that) or by modeling behavior with a doll or a favorite stuffed animal.

MOLLY: What do you mean?

“Oh, look at this elephant, he really hurt himself when he fell on the floor. Let’s make him feel better.” Then you hold the stuffed elephant and pat it on the head and kiss the boo-boo better, just like you would to a person.

MOLLY: How old is a child who would respond to this type of modeling?

DR. RUTHERFORD: Young; I would say between a one and two years old. You want to start this process as young as possible, because after a child reaches the age of 6 or 7 it’s very difficult to teach empathy.

MOLLY: So, essentially, you would take a stuffed animal or doll and address them like you would want your child to treat someone who is hurt? You show your kid how to offer solace?

DR. RUTHERFORD: That’s right.

Teaching a Young Child to Care About Others and Develop Empathy

I noticed that my 3 year-old child doesn’t seem very sympathetic when someone gets hurt.

MOLLY: This came from a reader based in Chicago, Illinois. She wondered what she could do to help her child learn to care more about others?

Dr. Susan Rutherford (Molly’s Mom): First, you would lead by example. You would give him empathy.

MOLLY: How do you do that?

DR. RUTHERFORD: Well, you could pick up a crying child, or you also could pick up a child who’s not crying but is distant. You could sit down and hold the kid and engage the kid with a book or a toy. You want to be available to the kid, so if the kid gets a bump or a boo-boo, you’re right there with a hug and a band-aid.

MOLLY: But what if you’re already giving a lot of love and care as a parent, but you don’t see the child caring about other kids?

DR. RUTHERFORD: Sometimes that happens. The first part of it is the modeling. And the second part is that you as a parent don’t hide your own boo-boos, physical boo-boos, from your children. I don’t mean traumatic injuries; I mean, if you bang your finger or bump your head… Something the child can understand. When this happens, you encourage the child to come over and pat you on the back, and hug you, and kiss the bruise to make it better.  Your role is to tell the kid how nice that is, how wonderful that is for mommy, and how much better he made you feel with his comfort.

MOLLY: So you might say, “Will you give my boo-boo a kiss to make it feel better?”

DR. RUTHERFORD: Yes, just like you would say to him when he gets hurt. So you actively engage the child in that process so they get to see what that looks like and they get to see what that feels like to comfort others. This gives him a very positive return from the mother or father or whoever for offering sympathy. It’s another example of positive reinforcement of behavior.

There is this wonderful video on YouTube about a Dutch soccer player when his team lost the match. He’s sitting on the field, totally dejected by the loss, and his 5-year old daughter comes over to pat him on the back, to comfort him. She wanted to offer comfort, to help him feel better. That scene is the epitome of empathy in kids.

Experience this? Comment below if you’ve had success teaching your child how to have more empathy. Or Contact US if you have other parenting questions you’d like to see addressed.