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Do you ever worry that your child might not be empathetic?

It hurts to hear from the teacher that your child has been bullying other children at school. It’s confusing when children ignore a sibling in distress or lash out in ways that seem intentionally cruel. It’s worrisome when you invite your child to participate in a volunteer opportunity, and you get a flat refusal as a reply. 

Still, that doesn’t necessarily mean that your child lacks empathy. In fact, your child may be extremely sensitive to the feelings of others, but have difficulty showing it. Empathy is complicated, and it doesn’t always look cute and cuddly to the outside observer. In fact, there are three different kinds of empathy.

Here’s how it breaks down:

  1. Affective empathy. This type of empathy is purely emotional. When you hear a tragic news story on the radio and your eyes start to well up, that’s affective empathy. You feel, I feel… it’s contagious.
  2. Cognitive empathy. If you can imagine how someone else must be feeling, that’s cognitive empathy. You might not be weeping with sadness, but you could reasonably say: “If that were me, I’d be really sad,” then you are demonstrating cognitive empathy. Cognitive empathy also helps you to guess what might make someone feel better.
  3. Compassionate empathy. This is empathy in action. When you reach out to help, whether it’s picking up a child who has fallen in the dirt, or sending a note of encouragement to a friend, you are exercising compassionate empathy. 

Here’s the truth: empathy is doesn’t always look they way you might expect. Some children are very empathetic, but have difficulty expressing it.

My child doesn’t seem to have much empathy at all. 

If your child doesn’t naturally spring into action when someone else is in pain, does that mean that something is wrong? Is empathy natural or is it something that can be learned?

Empathy is partly based in our biology, but a child’s empathy also develops along with physical maturity and learning experiences. 

So, for instance, some children are extremely sensitive to the emotions of others. They can’t bear to watch sad or “scary” movies. They cover their ears when they hear someone pretending to cry. Their little hearts just resonate when they hear an emotion. This is affective empathy, type #1, as you saw before. 

However, just because a child can sense the emotions of others, it doesn’t naturally follow that he or she knows what to do about it. If your child doesn’t understand why someone else might be upset, or what to do about it, then that affective empathy doesn’t translate into a kind gesture or a thoughtful word.

Highly empathetic children can behave in unkind ways

 So if your child is picking up on the sadness or anger of others, you might see this discomfort expressed in some ugly ways. If your child can’t understand the reason for the emotion, or doesn’t know what to do to help, you might see a reaction that looks like frustration, anger, deliberate ignoring, or even mockery.

Unfortunately, your child doesn’t say: “I see that you’re upset, and I don’t like it. I don’t know what to do about it. I want to get away. I’m worried you’re angry at me.” 

In a sense, your child’s reaction to the emotions of others might be so overwhelming in that moment that he or she can’t focus on anything else. 

What if my child doesn’t seem to notice the emotions of others?

If your child is not picking up on emotional cues from others like tone of voice or facial expressions, he or she may not express a lot of affective empathy. A child like this might be very logical or laid-back, but he or she can still learn to practice other types of empathy, like cognitive empathy or compassionate empathy.

It’s often difficult for children to imagine the emotions of other people, because they haven’t had many life experiences yet so they just don’t relate. Very young children struggle to understand that their thoughts are different from the thoughts of others, so your child may need some help with “mind-reading.” Reading books and making friends can provide opportunities for practicing perspective-taking. This is a kind of skill that will grow over time.

 Why doesn’t my child try to help others in need?

You might be saying at this point: feeling and thinking are all very well, but I would like my child to grow up to be kind! Fair enough. Compassionate empathy is what makes the world go round. We need all kindness and help. If you want to nurture your child’s ability to feel and express empathy, here are some activity for you to explore:

  • Emotion coaching can help your child work through those big feelings in a supportive way. If your child is having trouble offering empathy, look out for signs that your child is might be experiencing intense affective empathy in a way that is overwhelming and anxiety-provoking. Come alongside them and hear them out before you focus on the more practical actions they should be taking. 
  • Practice random acts of kindness. Model empathy and goodness toward others, and invite your child to do the same. Your child might not be experiencing genuine empathy at first, but how will they know how good it feels to help someone until they’ve done it?
  • Work on perspective-taking. Studies show that young people who study acting actually improve their ability to empathize with others, possibly because role-playing exercises help them understand what it might be like to be someone else. Play, talk, ask questions, and investigate what it might be like to be in someone else’s shoes when you are both calm and having fun.
  • Demonstrate empathy, above all. Without feeling understood, it’s not easy for a child to understand the feelings of others. Without knowing what it is like to be helped, it doesn’t make sense for a child to try to help others. Your empathic abilities and your demonstrations of kindness are wonderful teaching opportunities. You don’t have to downplay the importance of your child’s feelings to help them gain perspective.

Empathy isn’t easy but it grows from the inside out.