An Easy Way to Develop Empathy in Children and Adults

How to Develop Empathy in Children and Adults

Being able to understand what other people might be feeling – empathy – is the cornerstone of emotional intelligence and healthy, successful relationships. Empathy is a little bit of wonderful for everyone, so anything that can boost it has to be a good thing. Research has found reading fiction is an easy way to do this.

By following the inner lives of characters in fictional stories, readers are able to form ideas about the emotions, motives, and ideas of people in real life. The way we understand people in stories is similar to the way we understand people in the real world.

Understanding stories requires the capacity to understand the characters – how they’re feeling, what they’re going through, their relationships. It’s not surprising the, that rResearch has confirmed a link between reading fiction and an increased capacity to empathise. 

‘What’s a piece of fiction, what’s a novel, what’s a short story, what’s a play or movie or television series? It’s a piece of consciousness being passed from mind to mind. When you’re reading or watching a drama, you’re taking in a piece of consciousness that you make your own … That seems an exciting idea.’ – Professor Keith Oatley, University of Toronto Department of Applied Psychology and Human Development.

Let’s Talk About the Research.

A study, published in the journal Trends in Cognitive Science, found that reading fictional stories was connected to higher empathy scores than reading nonfiction. To measure empathy, the researchers showed photographs of people’s eyes to participants. They then asked the participants to choose one of four terms they believed best described what the person in the photograph was thinking or feeling. Similar results have been found when participants watched fictional drama (The West Wing), or played a video game with a fictional storyline (Gone Home – a detective game). 

The most important characteristic of being human is that our lives are social … What’s distinctive about humans is that we make social arrangements with other people – with friends, with lovers, with children – that aren’t pre-programmed by instinct. Fiction can augment and help us understand our social experience.’ – Professor Keith Oatley.

Stories communicate truths about human psychology and relationships, and when we read about characters, we gain insight into our own experiences.

Research has also shown that fiction can increase empathy for a race or culture that is different to our own. One study found that people who had read a fictional story about a Muslim woman in New York (Saffron Dreams by Shaila Abdullah) had less bias in the perception of Arab and Caucasian faces compared to a group that read non-fiction.

Humans have told stories since the beginning of time. When something is so pervasive across time and culture, it’s likely to have a good reason for being there.

‘Almost all human cultures create stories that, until now, have been rather dismissively called ‘entertainment … I think there is also something more important going on.’ – Professor Keith Oatley. 

How to Develop Empathy in Children …

According to information presented at the American Psychological Association’s 122nd Annual Convention, over 75% of books are read to preschoolers refer to the mental states of the characters. An in-depth analysis of 90 books for 3-4 year olds and 5-6 year olds found that mental state was referred to every three sentences or so.

Stories for children also tend to involve complex concepts, such as the understanding that people sometimes have different opinions, ideas and beliefs. This is something that develops in children from about age three. Until then, children generally believe that all people think the same way and believe the same things as they do. There is limited understanding that not everyone sees the world through their eyes. Children younger than three would, for example, have trouble understanding that some people might prefer milk over lemonade.

‘Children between the ages of 3 and 5 years old acquire a theory-of-mind, in other words, an understanding that other people have thoughts, beliefs and desires that may differ from their own … Around the same ages, children also begin to understand what characters in stories are feeling and thinking,’ – Raymond Mar, psychologist, York University, Canada.

Children who read stories with their parents seem to be more empathic than those who don’t. An important factor in this is the conversation that happens between the adult and the child during story-telling. 

In a recent study, Mar found that children who were read a story about honesty acted more honestly when they were given the opportunity to lie or cheat.

As well as anything that can come from the words in the book, the actual experience of sitting with a child during story-telling is also important. The discussions that are sparked by a story, such as talking about feelings, mental states, ideas and opinions seem to happen more during reading than at other times during day to day life. These discussions play an important role in the development of the child.

As well as books, watching movies also increases performance in theory-of-mind tests. (The understanding in children that other people might have different thoughts, needs, motives, beliefs and intentions.) The more television a child watches however, the worse they perform.

The exact mechanism underlying this isn’t clear, however one theory is that as with reading to a child, during a movie (compared to television) there is more conversation between the parent and the child. Parents are more likely to talk to children more about mental states. Another theory is that children have more trouble following a television show because of the regular intrusion of commercials.

And finally …

Everything we experience helps to shape the way we experience the world and the way we are in it. Stories that are fictional create a world that encourages an exploration and experimentation with real human experiences and qualities, nurturing empathy, one of the most beautiful of human qualities, along the way.

18 Comments

Amelia R. Rey, L.C.S.W.

I truly believe this is something that is lacking in our children these days. As a counselor in an elementary school I try to emphasize this when I go into the classrooms during my Character Formation Lessons.

Reply
Adele

I find this very interesting. My son who is 12 and has Aspergers doesn’t particularly like fiction stories and much prefers to read non-fiction. He rarely shows any empathy and it’s helpful to know how I can help him develop this by being very present in these areas.

Reply
Lynde F. Ugoretz

I agree with this article. I work with preschool children. It would have been helpful to provide a few examples of books that would help foster empathy.

Reply
Margaret Wilson

I live with recurring depression and I am working hard at understanding and minimising its power. I quickly recognise it in other people though I can’t say I’ve read much fiction in my 66 years. I do, however, read as many books and articles on the subject as I can. I live with a man who never reads or watches any type of fiction on TV or goes to the cinema and he is quite unable to recognise when I need emotional help. I’ve never seen his parents touch one another or even speak lovingly to each other and, they too, never read fiction, watch fictional TV or go to the cinema. During my last episode of depression (during a change in medication because of sleep problems) I printed out an article on how to help someone with depression but he wouldn’t read it, saying that he didn’t need anyone to tell him how to behave. I’m leaving him on Tuesday.

Reply
Karen - Hey Sigmund

Margaret you sound strong and clear. I imagine this wouldn’t have been an easy decision to make. You deserve to feel loved and happy and I wish you all the very best.

Reply
Stan G

I agree wholeheartedly with this article.

I used to read fiction stories avidly as a child, and still do, and my empathy towards others is such that I can read micro-emotions in everyone I meet. I know of several people who show little to no empathy towards others and they are non-fiction readers.

This article makes complete sense to me and my understanding of those people who read non-fiction.

Reply
Sarah

Thank you for a great article. My son is a very sensitive child & his empathy is very noticeable. I think there is a level of hereditary markers in empathy but building on it to become a positive quality in a person is a parent/adults responsibility to help, or as you say, nurture that in a child. The worrying aspect is that the empathetic child may be the child who is bullied. I hope I’m wrong.

Reply
Karen - Hey Sigmund

Yes absolutely – nature and nurture can both have a hand in empathy, but nature is not destiny. The environment we provide for our kids is so important. I wish all kids with empathy could grow up protected from the ones whose hearts are a little harder. And if they are targeted, the message is that nothing stays the same – even bullies. For kids with empathy, their social and emotional intelligence will hold them strong.

Reply
Sue F

I didn’t start to really read until I was in my twenties and was waiting at the airport for a plane. Talk about escapism! I haven’t stopped since and is one of my favourite past-times.

Reply
Steve Cripe RN

Unlike children, by the time we are adults I believe that either you have empathy, or you don’t. It is my belief and experience that empathy must be gained and understood by the time we are adults, which is why teaching empathy and compassion in grade schools is so important.

Reply
Niels Teunis

I love the research on reading. I love to read and so my girl. But I don’t like the notion that we have to “teach,” “instill,” or “develop” empathy. I have found empathy to be inherently present in children. What really nourishes this is our ability to empathize with children, not come at them with stuff they need to develop. It’s all there. If you can’t see it, you need work on empathy. Not your child.

Reply
Karen - Hey Sigmund

Niels, if all children had empathy, there would be no bullying. Similarly, there would be no children who grew up to be adults without empathy. The seeds of empathy might be there in children but it is something that certainly needs to be nurtured and developed. Teaching isn’t always an explicit, obvious process. It comes in the gentle subtle ways too – but it is all important. If all children had empathy, there would be no bullying, and there would be no adults who were without empathy. Nobody is suggesting ‘coming at them’. It’s about being a gentle, loving, strong presence and actively nurturing the qualities they need to be healthy, thriving adults.

Reply
Dondon

Niels and Karen, I think in a way, you are both right. . A child who bullies is not without empathy. A child who bullies is a deeply hurt fearful child who lost his connection to others and needs help to rediscover the empathy in him and reopen its door and be willing to become vulnerable again. Even bullies have read books. But I also agree with the research that reading can help a child explore different ways to empathise. Empathy is like any muscle, it’s there but needs practice to be strengthened.
@karen: thank you for your blog! I enjoy reading it.

Reply
Karen - Hey Sigmund

Beautifully said. You’re absolutely right that many bullies have hearts that are hurting. There is also evidence coming through that some kids become bullies when they are over-indulged and raised without limits. The problem with this is that they aren’t encouraged to practice empathy in relation to others – the ’empathy’ muscle isn’t given a chance to strengthen. I love that this conversation is happening.

Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Follow Hey Sigmund on Instagram

Today was an ending and a beginning. My darling girl finished year 12. The final year at school is tough enough, but this year was seismic. Our teens have moved through this year with the most outstanding courage and grace and strength, and now it is time for them to rest and play. My gosh they deserve it. 

It is true that this is a time of celebration, but it can also be an intense time of self-reflection for our teens. (I can remember the same feelings when my gorgeous boy finished so many years ago!) My daughter has described it as, ‘I feel as though I’ve outgrown myself but my new self isn’t ready yet.’ This just makes so much sense. 

There is a beautifully fertile void that is waiting for whatever comes next for each of them, but that void is still a void. At different times it might feel exciting, overwhelming, or brutal in its emptiness.

We also have to remember that this is a time of letting go, and there might be grief that comes with that. Before they can grab on to their next big adventure, they have to let go of the guard rails. This means gently adjusting their hold on the world they have known for the last 12+ years, with its places and routines and people that have felt like home on so many days. There will be redirects and shiftings, and through it all the things that need to stay will stay, and the things that need to adjust will adjust. 

To my darling girl, your loved incredible friends, and the teens who make our world what it is - you are the beautiful  thinkers, the big feelers, the creators, the change makers, and the ones who will craft and grow a better world. However you might feel now, the lights are waiting to shine for you and because of you. The world beyond school is opening its arms to you. That opening might happen quickly, or gently, or smoothly or chaotically, but it will happen. This world needs every one of you - your voices, your spirits, your fire, your softness, your strength and your power. You are world-ready, and we are so glad you are here xxx
When our kids or teens are in high emotion, their words might sound anxious, angry, inconsolable, jealous, defiant. As messy as the words might be, they have a good reason for being there. Big feelings surge as a way to influence the environment to meet a need. Of course, sometimes the fallout from this can be nuclear.
⠀⠀
Wherever there is a big emotion, there will always be an important need behind it - safety, comfort, attention, food, rest, connection. The need will always be valid, even if the way they’re going about meeting it is a little rough. As with so many difficult parenting moments, there will be gold in the middle of the mess if we know where to look. 
⠀⠀
There will be times for shaping the behaviour into a healthier response, but in the middle of a big feeling is not one of those times. Big feelings are NOT a sign of dysfunction, bad kids or bad parenting. They are a part of being human, and they bring rich opportunities for wisdom, learning and growth. .
⠀⠀
Parenting isn’t about stopping the emotional storms, but about moving through the storm and reaching the other side in a way that preserves the opportunity for our kids and teens to learn and grow from the experience - and they will always learn best from experience. 
⠀⠀
To calm a big feeling, name what you see, ‘I can see you’re disappointed. I know how much you wanted that’, or, ‘I can see this feels big for you,’ or, ‘You’re angry at me about .. aren’t you. I understand that. I would be mad too if I had to […],’ or ‘It sounds like today has been a really hard day.’ 
⠀⠀
When we connect with the emotion, we help soothe the nervous system. The emotion has done its job, found support, and can start to ease. 
⠀⠀
When they ‘let go’ they’re letting us in on their deepest and most honest emotional selves. We don’t need to change that. What we need to do is meet them where they and gently guide them from there. When they feel seen and understood, their trust in us and their connection to us will deepen, opening the way for our influence.
⠀⠀

#parenthood #parenting #positiveparenting #parentingtips #childdevelopment #neuronurtured #anxiety #anxietyinchildren #childanxiety #motherhoodcommunity #parenti
When they are at that line, deciding whether to retreat to safety or move forward into brave, there will be a part of them that will know they have what it takes to be brave. It might be pale, or quiet, or a little tumbled by the noise from anxiety, but it will be there. And it will be magical. Our job as their flight crew is to clear the way for this magical part of them to rise. ‘I can see this feels scary for you - and I know you can do this.’ 
⠀⠀

⠀⠀

 #mindfulparenting #neuronurtured #parentingteens #neurodevelopment #braindevelopment #positiveparenting #parenting #parenthood #childdevelopment #parentingtip #adolescence #positiveparentingtips #anxietyawareness #anxietyinchildren #childanxiety #parentingadvice #anxiety #parentingtips #motherhoodcommunity #anxietysupport #mentalhealth #heyawesome #heysigmund #heywarrior
When our kids or teens are struggling, it can be hard to know what they need. It can also be hard for them to say. It can be this way for all of us - we don't always know what we need from the people around us. It might be space, or distraction, or silence, or maybe acknowledging and being there is enough. Sometimes we might need to know that the people we love aren't taking our need for space, or our confusion or anger or sadness personally, and that they are still there within reach.
⠀⠀
What can be easier is thinking about what other people might need. Asking this when they are calm can invite a different perspective and can give you some insight into what they need to hear when they are going through similar. Don't worry if you just get a shrug, or a disheartened, 'I don't know'. They don't need to know, and neither do we. The question in itself might be enough to open a new way through any sense of 'stuckness' or helplessness they might be feeling.
⠀⠀

⠀⠀
#parenthood #parenting #positiveparenting #parentingtips #childdevelopment #parentingadvice #parentingtip #mindfulparenting #positiveparentingtips #neurodevelopment #parentingteens
Give them space to talk but you don’t need to fix anything. You’ll want to, but the answers are in them, not us. Sometimes the answer will be to feel it out, or push for change, or feel the futility of it all so the feeling can let go, knowing it’s done it’s job - it’s recruited support, or raised awareness that something isn’t right.

Sometimes the feelings might be seismic but the words might be gone for a while. That’s okay too. Do they want to start with whatever words are there? Or talk about something else? Or go for a walk with you? Watch a movie with you? Or do a spontaneous, unnecessary drive thru with you just because you can - no words, no need to explain - just you and them and car music for the next 20 minutes. 

The more you can validate what they’re feeling (maybe, ‘Today was big for you wasn’t it’) and give them space to feel, the more they can feel the feeling, understand the need that’s fuelling it, and experiment with ways to deal with it. Sometimes, ‘dealing with it’ might mean acknowledging that there is something that feels big or important and a little out of reach right now, and feeling the fullness and futility of that. 

Part of building resilience is recognising that some days are rubbish, and that sometimes those days last for longer than they should, but we get through. First we feel floored, then we feel stuck, then we shift because the only choices we have we have are to stay down or move, even when moving hurts. Then, eventually we adjust - either ourselves, the problem, or to a new ‘is’. But the learning comes from experience.

I wish our kids never felt pain, but we don’t get to decide that. We don’t get to decide how our children grow, but we do get to decide how much space and support we give them for this growth. We can love them through it but we can’t love them out of it. I wish we could but we can’t.

So instead of feeling the need to silence their pain, make space for it. In the end we have no choice. Sometimes all the love in the world won’t be enough to put the wrong things right, but it can help them feel held while they move through the pain enough to find their out breath, and the strength that comes with that.♥️

Pin It on Pinterest