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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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‘Brave’ doesn’t always feel like certain, or strong, or ready. In fact, it rarely does. That what makes it brave.♥️
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#parenting #mindfulparenting #parentingtips
We teach our kids to respect adults and other children, and they should – respect is an important part of growing up to be a pretty great human. There’s something else though that’s even more important – teaching them to respect themselves first. 

We can’t stop difficult people coming into their lives. They might be teachers, coaches, peers, and eventually, colleagues, or perhaps people connected to the people who love them. What we can do though is give our kids independence of mind and permission to recognise that person and their behaviour as unacceptable to them. We can teach our kids that being kind and respectful doesn’t necessarily mean accepting someone’s behaviour, beliefs or influence. 

The kindness and respect we teach our children to show to others should never be used against them by those broken others who might do harm. We have to recognise as adults that the words and attitudes directed to our children can be just as damaging as anything physical. 

If the behaviour is from an adult, it’s up to us to guard our child’s safe space in the world even harder. That might be by withdrawing support for the adult, using our own voice with the adult to elevate our child’s, asking our child what they need and how we can help, helping them find their voice, withdrawing them from the environment. 

Of course there will be times our children do or say things that aren’t okay, but this never makes it okay for any adult in your child’s life to treat them in a way that leads them to feeling ‘less than’.

Sometimes the difficult person will be a peer. There is no ‘one certain way’ to deal with this. Sometimes it will involve mediation, role playing responses, clarifying the other child’s behaviour, asking for support from other adults in the environment, or letting go of the friendship.

Learning that it’s okay to let go of relationships is such an important part of full living. Too often we hold on to people who don’t deserve us. Not everyone who comes into our lives is meant to stay and if we can help our children start to think about this when they’re young, they’ll be so much more empowered and deliberate in their relationships when they’re older.♥️
When we are angry, there will always be another emotion underneath it. It is this way for all of us. 

Anger itself is a valid emotion so it’s important not to dismiss it. Emotion is e-motion - energy in motion. It has to find a way out, which is why telling an angry child to calm down or to keep their bodies still will only make things worse for them. They might comply, but their bodies will still be in a state of distress. 

Often, beneath an angry child is an anxious one needing our help. It’s the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. As with all emotions, anger has a job to do - to help us to safety through movement, or to recruit support, or to give us the physical resources to meet a need or to change something that needs changing. It doesn’t mean it does the job well, because an angry brain means the feeling brain has the baton, while the thinking brain sits out for a while. What it means is that there is a valid need there and this young person is doing their very best to meet it, given their available resources in the moment or their developmental stage. 

Children need the same thing we all need when we’re feeling fierce - to be seen,  heard, and supported; to find a way to get the energy out, either with words or movement. Not to be shut down or ‘fixed’. 

Our job isn’t to stop their anger, but to help them find ways to feel it and express it in ways that don’t do damage. This will take lots of experience, and lots of time - and that’s okay.♥️
The SCCR Online Conference 2021 is a wonderful initiative by @sccrcentre (Scottish Centre for Conflict Resolution) which will explore ’The Power of Reconnection’. I’ve been working with SCCR for many years. They do incredible work to build relationships between young people and the important adults around them, and I’m excited to be working with them again as part of this conference.

More than ever, relationships matter. They heal, provide a buffer against stress, and make the world feel a little softer and safer for our young people. Building meaningful connections can take time, and even the strongest relationships can feel the effects of disconnection from time to time. As part of this free webinar, I’ll be talking about the power of attachment relationships, and ways to build relationships with the children and teens in your life that protect, strengthen, and heal. 

The workshop will be on Monday 11 October at 7pm Brisbane, Australia time (10am Scotland time). The link to register is in my story.
There are many things that can send a nervous system into distress. These can include physiological (tired, hungry, unwell), sensory overload/ underload, real or perceived threat (anxiety), stressed resources (having to share, pay attention, learn new things, putting a lid on what they really think or want - the things that can send any of us to the end of ourselves).

Most of the time it’s developmental - the grown up brain is being built and still has a way to go. Like all beautiful, strong, important things, brains take time to build. The part of the brain that has a heavy hand in regulation launches into its big developmental window when kids are about 6 years old. It won’t be fully done developing until mid-late 20s. This is a great thing - it means we have a wide window of influence, and there is no hurry.

Like any building work, on the way to completion things will get messy sometimes - and that’s okay. It’s not a reflection of your young one and it’s not a reflection of your parenting. It’s a reflection of a brain in the midst of a build. It’s wondrous and fascinating and frustrating and maddening - it’s all the things.

The messy times are part of their development, not glitches in it. They are how it’s meant to be. They are important opportunities for us to influence their growth. It’s just how it happens. We have to be careful not to judge our children or ourselves because of these messy times, or let the judgement of others fill the space where love, curiosity, and gentle guidance should be. For sure, some days this will be easy, and some days it will feel harder - like splitting an atom with an axe kind of hard.

Their growth will always be best nurtured in the calm, loving space beside us. It won’t happen through punishment, ever. Consequences have a place if they make sense and are delivered in a way that doesn’t shame or separate them from us, either physically or emotionally. The best ‘consequence’ is the conversation with you in a space that is held by your warm loving strong presence, in a way that makes it safe for both of you to be curious, explore options, and understand what happened.♥️
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#mindfulparenting #positiveparenting #parenting

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