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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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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