Weekly Wrap-Up : Helping Your Child Feel Empathy


The weekly Wrap-Up is the place where we gather comments on Conversations With My Mother posts from different sources from all around the internet.

We’ve received some really interesting and insightful comments from our recent post:

My Child Doesn’t Seem to Have Empathy:


Oh… I get this only too well. ~ Mona M. via LinkedIn


Your example is a great way to introduce empathy.
A tool that fosters empathy for others is the Kelly Bear Feelings book. For sample pages and information, click below:
http://www.kellybear.com/Kelly_Bear_Books/KBBooks-Feelings_Book2col.html ~
Leah via LinkedIn


According to Dr. Montessori, children undergo specific periods of development during the formative years. From 0-3 they absorb anything and everything from their environment. Beginning with parents, siblings, relatives, friends and the community at large. If a parent is unaware of the psychic development that goes hand in hand with the physical development of a child, then the child will absorb all that his/her environment provides without differentiation. So obviously there is some sort of chaos in the child’s mind and as most children love to do, they imitate and produce what they have absorbed.

At 3 years of age, however, a child enters into a new phase of development where he/she tries to create order in the subconscious with all the chaotic impressions that have been absorbed up to that time. It is at this stage that parents need to be aware of the environment their child is placed in. If there is order in the environment it is easy for the child to create order within himself. It supports his inherent “urge” or the “sensitive period” for order. However, if this support in the outer environment is not provided, the child will begin to accumulate negativities – traits which will eventually result in outbursts of anger, lack of empathy/sympathy, obstinate behavior, challenging authority and so on.

So, be careful of your own unconscious behavior patterns and who and what you have in your child’s environment during the formative years. A well thought out and carefully prepared environment provides the nurturing that a young child needs to support his psychic as well as his physical development. ~ Bernadette via LinkedIn


Love the stuffed animal idea! I keep telling my 3.5 year old to be nice to his baby sister.
~ Sandy via ConversationsWithMyMother.com


With my first daughter I taught her that when someone has an emotion….sad, angry ( happy too etc) that their feelings are their responsibility and that none of us are responsible for HOW the others are feeling ( BUT if we intentionally or accidentally hurt someone …we still say sorry and ask if you can help) …However now she is 12 going on 13. She is a kind, polite girl…but someone detached emotionally…maybe her personality BUT I am guessing I helped shape that…..My second daughter…maybe I was just too busy …. or not going through the phase that I was when I was raising my first…..but my second is hugely empathetic …heart on her sleeve…concerned with others feelings and emotions. Quick to apologize and find out how she can help.

So yes….powerful….be so careful how you are teaching and role modeling to these little ones in those formative years. THEY ARE SPONGES. So I say to my clients ( busy working moms) WHAT do you want your little ones to see? A stressed out, tired, unbalanced, unhappy person….or someone who they will learn from as to HOW to live a life that is balanced…centered…created from consciousness awareness and our ability to manifest what we desire? The latter I hope.

Thanks Molly, for this discussion…it really all starts from when we were kids….this determines so much going forward in life. ~ Mona  the “Busy Mom Mentor” via LinkedIn


You have no greater fan for abandoning the impoverished educational paradigm of leaving children to simply “learn what they live” and proactively nurturing empathy – and other critical interpersonal communication skills – in young children than me Molly. So thank you for starting this discussion and for your thoughtful comment Bernadette. Given that knowledge about human brains has doubled in the past twenty years – with awareness of neuroplasticity making much of what was once considered fact now false with respect to adults’ capacity to learn – I wonder, however, if a modified lead might be warranted. We know the first five years are critical, but we do not yet know terribly much about what is – or is not – possible in teens and adults. Since human beings tend to live up to their stories, if we are to err as we continue exploring – and we most assuredly will – is there value in believing we are more miraculous rather than less?  – Marlaine via LinkedIn


I am not understanding. Does this article’s author believe empathy is generally only learned as it is taught, and then if only before age 5? The article says it is difficult to teach after this age, and I seem at a loss in how to respond, aside from simply asking for clarification. ~
Steve via Linked In


As Bernadette says, much of the brain cells’ initial wiring together happens in the first three years of life. There’s a saying about it, “brain cells that fire together, wire together.” The oxytocin response — the brain’s habit of releasing oxytocin in times when it’s safe to be open and intimate — certainly begins to form in the first three years or so. And there is very strong evidence that this response, which includes empathy, is indeed learned by experience. Not taught systematically, although it can be, but by modeling by the parents.

As Marlaine says, we continue to learn a lot about how human brains develop. We now know that new circuits can form at any time of life, and that new brain cells can come online. However, it’s much harder to form those new circuits — whether it’s learning a language or learning empathy — as we get older.

Moreover, kids who start out with a strong oxytocin response, which translates into empathy, the ability to trust and to bond, to be generous, have a healthier base from wich to make sense of that chaotic world outside the family.
Does that make sense?
 ~ Susan via LinkedIn


Thank you for the added explanation Susan. I believe this is more simply an area I’ve not delved before. I am typically not one who believes the body/mind is chemically self limiting. I can’t help but think on the foster children and adopted ones who during their formative years have clearly been mishandled, mistreated, abused in all sorts of fashion and methods, yet overcome these torments and live with compassion and empathy while raising children who are loved and cared for, albeit with the memories and emotional up-evils left by these early years. While it is difficult to set aside the chemistry of the mind, what is impossible to do is take a “Fantastic Voyage” into it and decipher how the humanity of these deep emotions truly develop and overcome the handicap emotionally imbedded in one’s physic.
This is an interesting aspect of emotional development.
~ Steve via LinkedIn


Hi Steve,

If I’m not mistaken, I think your question related to my original post about teaching empathy to kids. Here’s Dr. Susan Rutherford’s (my Mom) response:
“It is very difficult to teach empathy to kids after age 5. That has been the general belief system for decades in psychiatry. However with the new studies in brain development, there is some belief that the brain actually changes and grows and is not static. I really think it is harder to teach empathy after age 5 and much of teaching empathy is by modeling behavior and encouraging the child to participate in this behavior as we described in the blog post.
 Hope this helps.  ~ Molly Skyar – Conversations With My Mother.com


So it is akin to learning a new language then, as Susan touched on above. I can understand that as it takes more devotion and concentration to learn a new language as years accumulate. Are emotions able to be taught like a language then?

I appreciate the help given me to understand. I do find this interesting. Emotions for me are a “tell all” of sorts, communicating an internal aspect of ourselves that many can be well practiced at hiding, disguising. With empathy being such an internal and significant one, I did not want to assume that after the age of 5, the article was saying “it’s too hard to learn, too hard to teach, so put your focus elsewhere”. I believe I am seeing the perspective of the article. ~ Steve via Linked In


Me too Steve so delighted you, Susan and Norman have joined the discussion. You raise a great point Steve about children who have endured trauma growing up being more empathic as a result. When we understand that empathy references the ability “to feel with” another – be it joy or suffering – it makes sense that people who have endured trauma are often best able to empathize with others experiencing the same. This is why ex gang members, drug addicts, or abuse victims are typically better able to connect with clients than counselers who simply obtained academic degrees.

William M. Stowell-Alonza shared an awesome Time article regarding “How the Brain Wires Itself” here at P20 last week. Link for anyone who has yet to read it is http://lnkd.in/VpjwbK

There is also a very cool site called The Center for the Cultivation of Empathy that provides a phenomenal compilation of text and videos examining empathy from multiple perspectives. http://cultureofempathy.com/

Thank you again Molly and MOM for initiating this important discussion. The Village is awakening to our higher potential and this is a beautiful fact!  ~ Marlaine via LinkedIn


Not sure I agree with the concept of it being difficult to teach empathy after the age of 5. Our website focuses on just that. When kids visit our site (Kids Are Heroes – see kidsareheroes.org) they see so many other kids who give back. They are now in an atmosphere where it is normal for kids to volunteer which urges them to join in. Once they do that not only do they gain empathy, but they also develop confidence and build leadership skills. I am much older than 5 and am much more empathetic now as a result of being involved with these children. ~ Gabe via ConversationsWithMyMother.com site


Empathy is something that every child is born with. You will see a young child feeling sorry for an animal or another human being (even when watching a movie) Children also learn by example. If they have role models in their lives who are kind, respectful, loving, etc. towards others, then that is what the children will learn. Is the opposite that is being thought to them by adults who are role-modeling the wrong behaviors. ~ Ica via LinkedIn


So true Larry! Every adult plays some role in raising humanity – irrespective if they personally have children or work in the human development arena. This is why our byline at Parenting 2.0 http://parenting2pt0.org is “Raising Humanity Consciously and Collaboratively.”

It is truly shocking that families and societies invest billions educating children in academics, yet remain primarily reactive in Life Skills arenas (Health, Finance, Conflict Resolution). Loving arms linked make small the problems of our world. Much appreciate the many ways you work to raise awareness and nurture a new paradigm for child-rearing. Now if you would just restore that movie star mug of yours to your profile for us to enjoy… ~Marlaine via LinkedIn


I attended a workshop about this classroom based program Roots of Empathy developed by Mary Gordon which has had wonderful evidence based results in teaching empathy to young children. They have also developed a program called Seeds of Empathy which targets a younger age group. . www.rootsofempathy.org This is a very good site to check out. ~ Bev via LinkedIn


Marlaine what the Time magazine article states is absolutely true. Why it has taken so long for scientists to discover what our ancestors have known for millennia is something to wonder about.

Anyway, Just by asking ourselves “How can I be empathic?” The mind can generate thoughts of how to do so. This is a good exercise for older groups of children and can be used with young children as well. Tell them to pick one thought and do a skit about it. By acting it out/practicing children internalize the thought pattern on …… It becomes part of their being. So empathy enters their being through the back door so to say and remains as part and parcel of their inner being. As the article states, our brain has the capacity to do anything even substitute impulses for organs that are no longer there. I believe our mind is the instrument that can use thought forms to wire or rewire our brains to do anything we want as long as we know how to harness the thought waves we require.

Yes, the brain can rewire through the thoughts generated by our minds. Be it meditation or just concentrating on a particular thing. By teaching children that when they are triggered to anger or are challenged, they can outsmart it by simply thinking of it as, “It is just a thought form, nothing else”. They will be surprised to realize then, that the thought form has just vanished.

It is good to be aware how our thought patterns can and does affect our lives and how it can be harnessed to help our children to reach their full potential. It is in their hands. So never say “my child doesn’t seem to have …. or something” Because they do have it in them. It is just that the environment that they are in, gives them no opportunities to bring out their inherent potential relating to ….. such and such. They have the capacity. It is up to us to inspire and guide them on how to acquire and enhance ….. ~ Bernadette via LinkedIn


These exchanges are so great. Thank you. I am reminded too of a particular child abuse case I worked once. I believe the girls saw how I cared about their situation. They were so very sweet, good girls. They were placed into the foster system, but I was not able to follow them. For all I know a couple of them moved into this line of work, sharing their empathy and understanding for the turmoil children can be put through.
I’ll look up these sites referenced.
Really, everyone, thank you for these exchanges.
~Steve via LinkedIn


The article touches on an important point, namely: the importance of stimulating empathy and social skills in the early years as it is a sensitive period. I can understand the comments made as the title does seem to suggest that it is a critical period (a period whereafter a child cannot learn empathy) rather than a sensitive period (a period wherein the child is most able and open to learn empathy).

Empathy is a complex emotion and involves skills such as: understanding/translating emotions of others, being able to see something from another point of view, care… These skills can be developed in the early years, however, due to the complexity of these skills, I think it’s important to realize that young children may not seem to show a lot of empathy. Children under the age of three for example can be egocentric (not able to see the world through the eyes of others) and have difficulty with things such as sharing. These are normal behaviours and do not necessarily have to do with having a lack of ‘learnt skills’, but more with the development of the mind. I think it’s furthermore important to realize that young children before the age of 6 can have difficulty putting themselves ‘in the shoes of others’.

In short; it’s indeed important to stimulate empathy by talking about feelings, comforting children, being considerate of the feelings of children (e.g. ”I see that you’re sad”, ”Ah.. did you hurt yourself?” et cetera. However, it’s normal for young children to have difficulty with empathy. ~ Mustapha via LinkedIn


I suspect that the “behavior” of empathy can be learned along the way and at varying points of childhood. But I think to actually FEEL empathy… to experience the sense of connection and emotional involvement with someone who is experiencing pain, unhappiness, or suffering… that sort of emotional intelligence may have to develop in the very early years.

Perhaps an equally important consideration/conversation would include the LOSS of the ability to empathize. I think a lot of kids develop a natural sense of compassion and connection with others during the early years but subsequently experience a sense of vulnerability as they are confronted with insensitivity, neglect and even abuse over extended periods of time. To protect themselves from those intense feelings, they may turn off, disconnect, grow numb to the feelings of others, etc.

Then again, individual temperaments and inclinations may trump the whole deal. Each kid will handle their circumstances differently… ~ Phil via LinkedIn





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.