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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The temptation to fix their big feelings can be seismic. Often this is connected to needing to ease our own discomfort at their discomfort, which is so very normal.

Big feelings in them are meant to raise (sometimes big) feelings in us. This is all a healthy part of the attachment system. It happens to mobilise us to respond to their distress, or to protect them if their distress is in response to danger.

Emotion is energy in motion. We don’t want to bury it, stop it, smother it, and we don’t need to fix it. What we need to do is make a safe passage for it to move through them. 

Think of emotion like a river. Our job is to hold the ground strong and steady at the banks so the river can move safely, without bursting the banks.

However hard that river is racing, they need to know we can be with the river (the emotion), be with them, and handle it. This might feel or look like you aren’t doing anything, but actually it’s everything.

The safety that comes from you being the strong, steady presence that can lovingly contain their big feelings will let the emotional energy move through them and bring the brain back to calm.

Eventually, when they have lots of experience of us doing this with them, they will learn to do it for themselves, but that will take time and experience. The experience happens every time you hold them steady through their feelings. 

This doesn’t mean ignoring big behaviour. For them, this can feel too much like bursting through the banks, which won’t feel safe. Sometimes you might need to recall the boundary and let them know where the edges are, while at the same time letting them see that you can handle the big of the feeling. Its about loving and leading all at once. ‘It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to use those words at me.’

Ultimately, big feelings are a call for support. Sometimes support looks like breathing and being with. Sometimes it looks like showing them you can hold the boundary, even when they feel like they’re about to burst through it. And if they’re using spicy words to get us to back off, it might look like respecting their need for space but staying in reaching distance, ‘Ok, I’m right here whenever you need.’♥️
We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety have magic in them, every one of them, but until they have a felt sense of safety, it will often stay hidden.

‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what they feel. At school, they might have the safest, most loving teacher in the safest, most loving school. This doesn’t mean they will feel enough relational safety straight away that will make it easier for them to do hard things. They can still do those hard things, but those things are going to feel bigger for a while. This is where they’ll need us and their other anchor adult to be patient, gentle, and persistent.

Children aren’t meant to feel safe with and take the lead from every adult. It’s not the adult’s role that makes the difference, but their relationship with the child.

Children are no different to us. Just because an adult tells them they’ll be okay, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel it or believe it. What they need is to be given time to actually experience the person as being safe, supportive and ready to catch them.

Relationship is key. The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains in our way. When we feel someone really caring about us, we’re more likely to open up to their influence
and learn from them.

But we have to be patient. Even for teachers with big hearts and who undertand the importance of attachment relationships, it can take time.

Any adult at school can play an important part in helping a child feel safe – as long as that adult is loving, warm, and willing to do the work to connect with that child. It might be the librarian, the counsellor, the office person, a teacher aide. It doesn’t matter who, as long as it is someone who can be available for that child at dropoff or when feelings get big during the day and do little check-ins along the way.

A teacher, or any important adult can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
There is a beautiful ‘everythingness’ in all of us. The key to living well is being able to live flexibly and more deliberately between our edges.

So often though, the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ we inhale in childhood and as we grow, lead us to abandon some of those precious, needed parts of us. ‘Don’t be angry/ selfish/ shy/ rude. She’s not a maths person.’ ‘Don’t argue.’ Ugh.

Let’s make sure our children don’t cancel parts of themselves. They are everything, but not always all at once. They can be anxious and brave. Strong and soft. Angry and calm. Big and small. Generous and self-ish. Some things they will find hard, and they can do hard things. None of these are wrong ways to be. What trips us up is rigidity, and only ever responding from one side of who we can be.

We all have extremes or parts we favour. This is what makes up the beautiful, complex, individuality of us. We don’t need to change this, but the more we can open our children to the possibility in them, the more options they will have in responding to challenges, the everyday, people, and the world. 

We can do this by validating their ‘is’ without needing them to be different for a while in the moment, and also speaking to the other parts of them when we can. 

‘Yes maths is hard, and I know you can do hard things. How can I help?’

‘I can see how anxious you feel. That’s so okay. I also know you have brave in you.’

‘I love your ‘big’ and the way you make us laugh. You light up the room.’ And then at other times: ‘It can be hard being in a room with new people can’t it. It’s okay to be quiet. I could see you taking it all in.’

‘It’s okay to want space from people. Sometimes you just want your things and yourself for yourself, hey. I feel like that sometimes too. I love the way you know when you need this.’ And then at other times, ‘You looked like you loved being with your friends today. I loved watching you share.’

The are everything, but not all at once. Our job is to help them live flexibly and more deliberately between the full range of who they are and who they can be: anxious/brave; kind/self-ish; focussed inward/outward; angry/calm. This will take time, and there is no hurry.♥️
For our kids and teens, the new year will bring new adults into their orbit. With this, comes new opportunities to be brave and grow their courage - but it will also bring anxiety. For some kiddos, this anxiety will feel so big, but we can help them feel bigger.

The antidote to a felt sense of threat is a felt sense of safety. As long as they are actually safe, we can facilitate this by nurturing their relationship with the important adults who will be caring for them, whether that’s a co-parent, a stepparent, a teacher, a coach. 

There are a number of ways we can facilitate this:

- Use the name of their other adult (such as a teacher) regularly, and let it sound loving and playful on your voice.
- Let them see that you have an open, willing heart in relation to the other adult.
- Show them you trust the other adult to care for them (‘I know Mrs Smith is going to take such good care of you.’)
- Facilitate familiarity. As much as you can, hand your child to the same person when you drop them off.

It’s about helping expand their village of loving adults. The wider this village, the bigger their world in which they can feel brave enough. 

For centuries before us, it was the village that raised children. Parenting was never meant to be done by one or two adults on their own, yet our modern world means that this is how it is for so many of us. 

We can bring the village back though - and we must - by helping our kiddos feel safe, known, and held by the adults around them. We need this for each other too.

The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains that block our way.♥️

That power of felt safety matters for all relationships - parent and child; other adult and child; parent and other adult. It all matters. 

A teacher, or any important adult in the life of a child, can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child (and their parent) so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, I care about you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
Approval, independence, autonomy, are valid needs for all of us. When a need is hungry enough we will be driven to meet it however we can. For our children, this might look like turning away from us and towards others who might be more ready to meet the need, or just taking.

If they don’t feel they can rest in our love, leadership, approval, they will seek this more from peers. There is no problem with this, but we don’t want them solely reliant on peers for these. It can make them vulnerable to making bad decisions, so as not to lose the approval or ‘everythingness’ of those peers.

If we don’t give enough freedom, they might take that freedom through defiance, secrecy, the forbidden. If we control them, they might seek more to control others, or to let others make the decisions that should be theirs.

All kids will mess up, take risks, keep secrets, and do things that baffle us sometimes. What’s important is, ‘Do they turn to us when they need to, enough?’ The ‘turning to’ starts with trusting that we are interested in supporting all their needs, not just the ones that suit us. Of course this doesn’t mean we will meet every need. It means we’ve shown them that their needs are important to us too, even though sometimes ours will be bigger (such as our need to keep them safe).

They will learn safe and healthy ways to meet their needs, by first having them met by us. This doesn’t mean granting full independence, full freedom, and full approval. What it means is holding them safely while also letting them feel enough of our approval, our willingness to support their independence, freedom, autonomy, and be heard on things that matter to them.

There’s no clear line with this. Some days they’ll want independence. Some days they won’t. Some days they’ll seek our approval. Some days they won’t care for it at all, especially if it means compromising the approval of peers. The challenge for us is knowing when to hold them closer and when to give space, when to hold the boundary and when to release it a little, when to collide and when to step out of the way. If we watch and listen, they will show us. And just like them, we won’t need to get it right all the time.♥️

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