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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For way too long, there’s been an idea that discipline has to make kids feel bad if it’s going to steer them away from bad choices. But my gosh we’ve been so wrong. 

The idea is a hangover from behaviourism, which built its ideas on studies done with animals. When they made animals scared of something, the animal stopped being drawn to that thing. It’s where the idea of punishment comes from - if we punish kids, they’ll feel scared or bad, and they’ll stop doing that thing. Sounds reasonable - except children aren’t animals. 

The big difference is that children have a frontal cortex (thinking brain) which animals and other mammals don’t have. 

All mammals have a feeling brain so they, like us, feel sad, scared, happy - but unlike us, they don’t feel shame. The reason animals stop doing things that make them feel bad is because on a primitive, instinctive level, that thing becomes associated with pain - so they stay away. There’s no deliberate decision making there. It’s raw instinct. 

With a thinking brain though, comes incredibly sophisticated capacities for complex emotions (shame), thinking about the past (learning, regret, guilt), the future (planning, anxiety), and developing theories about why things happen. When children are shamed, their theories can too easily build around ‘I get into trouble because I’m bad.’ 

Children don’t need to feel bad to do better. They do better when they know better, and when they feel calm and safe enough in their bodies to access their thinking brain. 

For this, they need our influence, but we won’t have that if they are in deep shame. Shame drives an internal collapse - a withdrawal from themselves, the world and us. For sure it might look like compliance, which is why the heady seduction with its powers - but we lose influence. We can’t teach them ways to do better when they are thinking the thing that has to change is who they are. They can change what they do - they can’t change who they are. 

Teaching (‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘How can you put this right?’) and modelling rather than punishing or shaming, is the best way to grow beautiful little humans into beautiful big ones.

#parenting
Sometimes needs will come into being like falling stars - gently fading in and fading out. Sometimes they will happen like meteors - crashing through the air with force and fury. But they won’t always look like needs. Often they will look like big, unreachable, unfathomable behaviour. 

If needs and feelings are too big for words, they will speak through behaviour. Behaviour is the language of needs and feelings, and it is always a call for us to come closer. Big feelings happen as a way to recruit support to help carry an emotional load that feels too big for our kids and teens. We can help with this load by being a strong, calm, loving presence, and making space for that feeling or need to be ‘heard’. 

When big behaviour or big feelings are happening, whenever you can be curious about the need behind it. There will always be a valid one. Meet them where they without needing them to be different. Breathe, validate, and be with, and you don’t need to do more than that. 

Part of building resilience is recognising that some days and some things are rubbish, and that sometimes those days and things 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. They can’t learn to manage big feelings unless they have big feelings. They can’t learn to read the needs behind their feelings if they don’t have the space to let those big feelings come back to small enough so the needs behind them can step forward. 

When their world has spikes, and when we give them a soft space to ‘be’, we ventilate their world. We help them find room for their out breath, and for influence, and for their wisdom to grow from their experiences and ours. In the end we have no choice. They will always be stronger and bigger and wiser and braver when they are with you, than when they are without. It’s just how it is.♥️
When kids or teens have big feelings, what they need more than anything is our strong, safe, loving presence. In those moments, it’s less about what we do in response to those big feelings, and more about who we are. Think of this like providing a shelter and gentle guidance for their distressed nervous system to help it find its way home, back to calm. 

Big feelings are the way the brain calls for support. It’s as though it’s saying, ‘This emotional load is too big for me to carry on my own. Can you help me carry it?’ 

Every time we meet them where they are, with a calm loving presence, we help those big feelings back to small enough. We help them carry the emotional load and build the emotional (neural) muscle for them to eventually be able to do it on their own. We strengthen the neural pathways between big feelings and calm, over and over, until that pathway is so clear and so strong, they can walk it on their own. 

Big beautiful neural pathways will let them do big, beautiful things - courage, resilience, independence, self regulation. Those pathways are only built through experience, so before children and teens can do any of this on their own, they’ll have to walk the pathway plenty of times with a strong, calm loving adult. Self-regulation only comes from many experiences of co-regulation. 

When they are calm and connected to us, then we can have the conversations that are growthful for them - ‘Can you help me understand what happened?’ ‘What can help you so this differently next time?’ ‘How can you put things right? Do you need my help to do that?’ We grow them by ‘doing with’ them♥️
Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting

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