empathy emotion regulation emotional awareness perspective taking child teen development adhd


‘‘My child does not seem to understand when s/he hurts other’s feelings, how can I help them develop empathy?’’

What is empathy and why is it important?

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Empathy is key in developing deep meaningful relationships, is a precursor to helping behaviours, and contributes to happiness more broadly. 

When should children exhibit empathy?

There is no specific age at which a child should have empathy (even adults can struggle with empathy). Like most skills and abilities, empathy develops throughout childhood and teenage years. In fact, empathy is intricately linked to a child’s emotional and cognitive development. The first signs of empathy appear in infancy-toddlerhood as the child comes to understand that they are separate from their caregivers (and eventually develop theory of mind). Throughout childhood, two crucial building blocks for empathy are emotional awareness and perspective-taking.

How can I develop my child’s emotional awareness? 

Emotional awareness refers to the ability to correctly identify one’s own and other’s emotions. Moreover, emotional awareness is crucial for emotional regulation. You can promote emotional awareness in children (and in yourself!) by frequently using more varied emotion words. Parents tend to use three emotion words when speaking with children: happy, sad, and angry. Try to expand your child’s vocabulary by using more specific words like excited, delighted, surprised, disappointed (one of my favorites), defeated, frustrated, impatient, bored, and lonely. You can use these words to describe your child’s emotions, your own, and the emotions of peers, book, and TV characters. Although there are many helpful and educational materials dedicated to this subject, nothing can replace parent modeling (teaching by doing).

How can I develop my child’s perspective-taking?

Perspective-taking refers to the ability to put oneself in somebody else’s shoes and see the situation from their standpoint. You can promote perspective-taking in your child by asking them about what they think others are feeling or thinking and encouraging them to find out if it is true. Children can also learn perspective-taking (and empathy) through gift-giving. Whether for birthdays or the holidays, encourage your child to participate in choosing, buying, preparing, or wrapping gifts for someone else. Encourage them to think about what another person would like to receive based on their interests/preferences. Discuss with your child how they think someone might feel when they receive a gift they want versus one they did not want. Volunteering can also teach kids about empathy and compassion as it can help build tolerance (through being expose to diverse individuals) and to have a greater sense of being connected to one’s community.

For further reading:

How Children Develop Empathy | Psychology Today

Empathy in Children: Common Issues and What to Do – Cadey

Dr. Stephanie Leon

Dr. Leon is a clinical psychologist and neuropsychologist practicing in the province of Ontario and Quebec. She works with children, teens, and their parents to address emotional, behavioural, and cognitive difficulties.

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