A parent’s guide to cultivating empathy in children by nurturing compassionate connections—here’s what you should know about developing empathy in children. 


You’re here because you find yourself grappling with a question like this:

“My child does not seem to understand when they hurt others’ feelings. How can I help them develop their capacity for empathy?”

It’s not uncommon for children to struggle with empathy at certain stages of development. Your proactive approach to addressing this issue is commendable, so you’re on the right track just by reading this article. Empathy is a complex ability that develops over time, and I’m here to provide you with guidance and practical strategies to support your child’s journey toward empathy.

Here’s what parents need to know about developing empathy in children.

What Is Empathy, And Why Does It Matter?

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. It holds immense significance in fostering happiness, meaningful social relationships, and social skills. Parents play a key role by recognizing its value and actively nurturing empathy and empathic responses. 

When Should Children Exhibit Empathy?

There is no specific age at which a child should have empathy (as I’m sure you already know, even adults can struggle with empathy!) Like most skills and abilities, advanced levels of empathy develop throughout childhood and teenage years. In fact, empathic responses are intricately linked to a child’s emotional and cognitive development.

Children will eventually develop what’s called theory of mind—a crucial cognitive milestone and building block in the development of empathy. Theory of mind refers to the ability to understand and attribute mental states, such as beliefs, desires, intentions, and emotions, to oneself and others. It involves recognizing that individuals have their own thoughts and perspectives which may differ from one’s own.

Children develop theory of mind gradually over the course of their early childhood years. Different children may develop theory of mind at different rates, and individual differences can occur.

Factors such as cultural influences, language development, and social experiences can also impact the progression of theory of mind. With that in mind, here are some general milestones most parents can expect to see as their children develop theory of mind and gain empathy.

Stage 1: Infancy (0-12 months)

During this stage, infants start developing awareness of their own mental states and begin to differentiate between self and others. They may display basic forms of empathy, such as imitating facial expressions.

Stage 2: Toddlerhood (1-3 years)

Children then begin to recognize that others have different perspectives and knowledge. They may engage in “joint attention” by following someone’s gaze or pointing to share an object of interest. They also start using basic mental state language, like saying “I know” or “I don’t know.”

Stage 3: Preschool Age (3-5 years)

Children become more skilled at understanding others’ thoughts and feelings. They can engage in pretend play, taking on different roles and understanding that characters in stories have different perspectives. They also develop a basic understanding of false beliefs, recognizing that someone can have an incorrect belief about a situation.

Stage 4: School Age (5-7 years)

At this stage, children’s theory of mind continues to develop further. They become more adept at understanding and predicting others’ behaviors based on their mental states. They understand that people can have hidden thoughts, make inferences about others’ feelings, and become more skilled in perspective-taking.

How Can I Develop My Child’s Cognitive Empathy?

Throughout childhood, two crucial building blocks for empathy are emotional awareness and perspective-taking.

Emotional awareness

Emotional awareness refers to the ability to correctly identify one’s own and others’ 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 the same three emotion words when speaking with children: happy, sad, and angry. Try to expand your child’s vocabulary as a role model by using more specific words to describe positive and negative emotions, like:

  • Excited
  • Delighted
  • Surprised
  • Disappointed (one of my favorites)
  • Defeated
  • Frustrated
  • Impatient
  • Bored
  • Lonely

You can use these words to describe your child’s emotions, your own, and the emotions of peers and characters in books and movies.

Although there are many helpful and educational materials dedicated to this subject, nothing can replace parent modeling (teaching by doing).


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 in several ways.

1- Considering Feelings 

Ask open-ended questions that invite your child to speculate about what others might be feeling or thinking based on language and body language. Encourage them to seek confirmation by engaging in dialogue or actively listening to other’s perspectives.

2- Gift Giving

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.

3- Volunteering

Volunteering can also teach kids about empathy and compassion, as it can help build tolerance (through exposure to diverse individuals) and a greater sense of being connected to one’s community.

Recognizing When to Seek Help: Child Psychotherapy Services

As a parent, you play a vital role in supporting your child’s growth, including how they develop empathy. If you find yourself in need of additional guidance or specialized support, I encourage you to reach out for a consultation with Dr. Leon.

Dr. Leon can help provide the necessary tools and strategies to nurture your child’s social-emotional well-being and ensure they thrive in their relationships and interactions with others. If your child struggles with negative feelings, aggressive behavior, or empathy skills, then Dr. Leon can help. 

Take the first step and schedule a consultation today to give your child the best opportunity for a bright and empathetic future.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What age is appropriate to start teaching empathy to children? 

Empathy development begins in infancy, but it is an ongoing process that continues through childhood and adolescence. While there is no specific age to start teaching empathy, parents can begin introducing age-appropriate concepts and activities as early as toddlerhood. Simple gestures like labeling emotions and encouraging sharing can lay the groundwork for empathy at a young age.

What are some common challenges parents may encounter while trying to develop empathy in their children?

Some common challenges parents may face when fostering empathy in children include resistance or lack of interest and navigating conflicts with peers. 

To overcome these challenges, parents can:

  • Provide consistent guidance and reinforcement
  • Create a safe and empathetic environment at home
  • Encourage open communication
  • Offer alternative perspectives to broaden their child’s understanding

You can promote empathy in your children by modeling empathetic behavior, demonstrating kindness and understanding in your interactions. You should encourage perspective-taking and teach children to recognize emotions in others by discussing feelings and perspectives in different situations, fostering understanding and compassion. Finally, engaging in activities that promote empathy, such as volunteering, reading books with diverse characters and themes, and encouraging open discussions about emotions and different points of view is also important.

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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Learn what concussions are, how they affect children, steps for prevention, and tips for supporting recovery.


As parents, we know that children and teens are naturally curious and full of energy, which can sometimes lead to accidents. Whether it’s during contact sports and collision sports activities, playground adventures, biking, or even everyday mishaps, head injuries such as concussions can occur.

In this guide, I’ll walk you through the fundamental aspects of childhood concussions, from understanding what they are and how they occur to recognizing the signs and symptoms. I’ll also provide expert advice on prevention strategies to lower the risk of concussion and share valuable insights into the recovery process. 

What Is A Concussion?

A concussion is a mild brain injury that occurs when the brain experiences a sudden jolt, blow, or impact. It typically results from a direct hit to the head, face, neck, or body that causes the brain to move rapidly within the skull. Think of the brain as a squishy fish in a very small round tank (skull) who is being shaken.

Indirect forces, such as whiplash-like movements or violent shaking of the head, can also cause concussions.

During a concussion, the impact disrupts the brain’s normal functioning, leading to various symptoms and temporary changes in brain function.

What Are Some Common Child And Teen Concussion Symptoms?

Doctors and healthcare providers can diagnose concussions based on the signs of concussion your child exhibits. Signs and symptoms of concussion might include:

  • Fatigue
  • Sensitivity to light and noise
  • Inattention & delayed reaction time
  • Difficulty with problem-solving
  • Memory and learning challenges
  • Dizziness & blurry vision
  • Headache
  • Vomiting
  • Getting frustrated or upset very quickly

All children should be monitored after a concussion, but most concussions do not require emergency treatment unless symptoms increase in severity (e.g., seizure, slurring of words) over the first few hours, in which case a trip to the hospital is necessary as it may indicate a more severe brain injury. 

Medical imaging techniques, including X-rays, CT scans, or MRI scans, may be necessary to diagnose injuries that go beyond a concussion.

How Long Do Symptoms Of A Concussion In Children Last?

Concussion symptoms typically last from a few days to a few months, and interestingly, the severity of the hit does not always correlate with the intensity or duration of symptoms.

Even seemingly minor head impacts, like a fall during a leisurely walk, can lead to a concussion. At the same time, more significant incidents, such as car accidents, may result in a milder injury. 

Unfortunately, the factors that predict the severity and duration of symptoms are still not well understood.

So it’s essential to note that despite a child appearing and feeling back to normal, they may still experience subtle cognitive inefficiencies, indicating that the recovery process can still be ongoing.

How To Protect Your Child Against Concussions

Prevention is always better than cure. To minimize the risk of concussions in children, it’s crucial to take proactive measures and create a safe environment for their activities.

Here are some practical steps you can take.

Helmets: A Must-Have Gear

Always ensure your child wears a helmet when engaging in activities such as biking, skiing, roller skating, or any other activities faster than running speed. A proper helmet (right size and tighly tied) provide vital protection for the head and can significantly reduce the risk of concussions.

Buckle Up for Safety

Whether traveling in a car or participating in sports that involve vehicles, ensure your child always wears a seatbelt. Adjust the seatbelt according to their height to provide optimal protection and minimize the likelihood of head injuries in case of an accident. Always make sure that car seats are for the appropriate height and weight of the child.

Choosing Safer Activities

While adventure is essential for children’s growth, it’s advisable to steer them away from sports or activities with a high risk of concussions. Encourage them to engage in safer alternatives that still promote physical fitness and fun.

Supporting Recovery From Concussions In Children and Teens

My child has had a concussion. Now what? 

First, know that even the most cautious parents sometimes experience events out of their control that lead to a child’s concussion.

The good news is that most children will recover from their concussions without lasting effects. If your child has experienced a concussion, there are several steps you can take to aid their recovery and promote brain healing.

Reducing Sources of Stress

Concussions can diminish a child’s ability to cope with daily stress and impact their mental health. Identifying and reducing stressors in their environment can create a calmer and more supportive atmosphere for their recovery.

Addressing Mental Health

Concussion symptoms, such as irritability and difficulties with problem-solving, can make children more susceptible to mental health challenges. Promptly addressing any emerging mental health difficulties and seeking professional help when needed is crucial in ensuring their well-being.

Nurturing Positive Social Relationships

Encourage your child to engage in positive social interactions. Building and maintaining healthy relationships with family and friends can provide emotional support and aid in their recovery journey.

Prioritizing Sleep Hygiene

Adequate rest is essential for the healing process. Promote good sleep hygiene by establishing a consistent sleep routine and creating a comfortable sleep environment for your child.

Emphasizing a Balanced Diet

Proper nutrition plays a vital role in recovery. Ensure your child consumes a balanced diet rich in nutrients that support brain health, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins.

Regular Exercise

Engaging in regular exercise can contribute to overall well-being and aid in the recovery process. Encourage your child to participate in age-appropriate physical activities, as recommended by their healthcare provider.

Avoiding Alcohol, Smoking, and Drugs

If you have a teen at home who has suffered from a concussion, then it’s more important than ever to enforce a strict no alcohol and drugs policy. Alcohol, tobacco, and drug use can have detrimental effects on the healing process. It’s crucial to create a substance-free environment for your child during their recovery from a concussion. Also be mindful of second-hand smoke.

Mental Health, Stress, And Concussions

Concussions can reduce your child’s ability to deal with daily stress and affect their mental health. Concussion symptoms such as irritability and trouble with problem-solving can make your child more vulnerable to stress.

Although the exact link is still poorly understood, children who have had concussions are also more likely to experience suicidal ideation.

Therefore, reducing stressors and focusing on pacing can be beneficial. Pacing refers to becoming attuned to cognitive (mental) fatigue and ensuring that the child is never overexerting themselves (which can result in meltdowns or panic-like symptoms) but rather working at a steady and somewhat slower pace with plenty of breaks and rest.

The Dangers of Second Impact Syndrome

If your child has had a concussion, then you should also know about the lasting effects of brain injuries, including Second Impact Syndrome. There are several potential risks associated with sustaining a second concussion within a two-year period of time after the initial concussion.

Such occurrences can lead to more severe symptoms and long-lasting effects. In extremely rare circumstances, a second concussion can cause the brain to lose its ability to regulate pressure which then triggers the brain to swell and get crushed against the skull resulting in death or severe impairment.

This alarming condition, known as “second impact syndrome,” underscores the significance of safeguarding your child’s brain health, especially after a concussion.

Ensure A Smooth & Complete Concussion Recovery: Neuropsychology Intervention

If you find yourself in need of professional support and intervention for your child’s neuropsychology needs following a concussion, we encourage you to book an appointment. Dr. Leon’s expertise and specialized care can make a positive difference in your child’s recovery journey.

Take the next step towards ensuring the best possible outcomes for your child, and explore our neuropsychology intervention services today. Your child’s future health and well-being are worth it!

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If you’re looking to delve deeper into the topic of concussions in children, consider exploring the following resources.

Frequently Asked Questions 

What are the potential long-term effects of childhood concussions? 

While most children recover fully from concussions, there can be potential for short- to moderate-term effects, such as difficulties with attention, memory, learning, and emotional regulation. Long-term effects can happen in those with a history of prior concussions. Be sure to manage concussions properly and follow the recommended recovery process to minimize the risk of long-term effects.

How long does it typically take for a child to recover from a concussion? 

The recovery time for concussions varies for each child and depends on factors such as the severity of the injury and individual differences. Most children recover within a few weeks to a few months. However, some cases may take longer. The recovery process should be gradual, with appropriate rest and monitored progression.

Are there any specific activities or sports that pose a higher risk of concussions for children? 

Certain activities and sports carry a higher risk of concussions for children, such as contact sports like football, hockey, and soccer. Activities involving high-speed or impact, such as biking, skateboarding, and horseback riding, also pose risks. You cannot prevent all concussions, but ensure proper safety measures, such as using protective gear like helmets. Return-to-play guidelines should also be followed to minimize the risk of a repeat concussion.

Parents should closely monitor their child following a concussion, seeking immediate medical attention if any severe symptoms like loss of consciousness, seizures, or worsening headaches occur. After receiving medical clearance, it’s important to allow the child to rest both physically and cognitively, gradually reintroducing activities as symptoms improve and following the healthcare provider’s guidelines for returning to school and sports to prevent re-injury. It is also important that parents offer emotional support, patience, and understanding during the recovery process, ensuring the child feels supported while allowing ample time for full recuperation before resuming regular activities.

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. Dr. Leon offers online neuropsychology services through the Leon Psychology Clinic.

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In this parent’s guide, discover effective strategies on how to set boundaries during the holidays, ensuring smoother celebrations for your family.


If you’re anything like me, the upcoming holiday season is both something to look forward to and a source of stress. Because as much as I enjoy the time off, long walks in the snow, and cozying up on the couch with a hot beverage, the holidays also mean holiday work parties, kids hyped on treats, and obligatory visits to family members and friends.

Exhausted, anyone?

If you have young children, the disrupted routines and overstimulation can be a recipe for meltdowns, especially if your child struggles with emotional regulation problems. If you have teens, you might be discouraged by their desire to spend time with their friends or on their phones rather than interact with family from out of town. So how can we, as parents, ensure the holidays go as smoothly as possible?

Here are my suggestions for parents on how to set boundaries during the holidays so you can enjoy yourself without exhausting yourself.

Why Are Boundaries Important During The Holidays?

The holiday season often comes with a whirlwind of activities, obligations, and expectations, making boundaries all the more crucial for parents. Establishing boundaries with family, children, and friends helps you alleviate some of the stress and maintain control over schedules and commitments.

Avoid family conflict

Boundaries provide a framework for maintaining family harmony during the holidays. They help establish clear expectations, ensuring that everyone’s needs are respected and considered. Strong boundaries help parents prevent conflicts, misunderstandings, and excessive demands that may strain relationships.

Preserve routines and stability

Children thrive on routines and stability. So it’s no wonder that some kids struggle behaviourally during the holidays when the usual flow of their day is disrupted by poor boundaries. Parents can prioritize their children’s well-being with boundaries that help maintain essential routines, such as bedtimes.

Teach children about boundaries

The holiday season presents an excellent opportunity for parents to teach children about the importance of having and respecting others’ boundaries. By modeling healthy boundaries themselves, parents equip their children with valuable life skills that extend beyond the holiday season.

Setting Boundaries During The Holidays In 4 Easy Steps

STEP 1 – Write down clear goals, prioritizing what you value most.

Start by asking yourself what you hope to achieve during the holiday season. I suggest prioritizing and choosing a maximum of 2-3 goals.

  • Spending quality time: Do you prioritize spending time with people like family members or close friends?
  • Honoring traditions: Are there particular family traditions, whether faith-based or otherwise, that hold significance for you? Do you enjoy cooking special dishes for the holiday meal or hosting the family party? 
  • Personal relaxation: Do you aim to carve out moments for self-care and rejuvenation?
  • Fun with kids: Would you like to engage in outdoor activities or create memorable moments with your children?
  • Socializing: Do you wish to visit friends or dine out at restaurants?

Think about what truly brings you joy and aligns with your values so you can make conscious choices that contribute to a more fulfilling holiday experience. Allow yourself permission not to do things out of habit.

STEP 2 – Compare your goals to your existing plans—nix what doesn’t fit.

Once you’ve defined your goals, evaluate your existing plans and assess whether they align with your identified priorities and values. Evaluate whether your goals and plans are realistic depending on your family’s situation.

  • Realistic expectations: Are your goals feasible given your family’s situation? Will certain activities cause unnecessary stress or disrupt routines?
  • Financial considerations: Be sure to include any financial restrictions in your planning. Too many families go overboard on spending during the holidays, which can take months to recover and leads to stress and arguments.
  • Children’s participation: Set realistic expectations for your children’s involvement in holiday activities. Think about their age, interests, and energy levels when planning events such as holiday parties. Is it realistic to bring young kids to a late-night event? What about your teen who wants to watch a movie with a friend on the same day you want to relax at home?

Expect to run into a few tough decisions along the way. Brainstorm solutions and be open to compromise to create a balanced and enjoyable holiday experience. Avoid letting feelings like guilt drive your decision-making. 

STEP 3 – Firmly establish healthy boundaries for the holidays with family and friends.

Now that you’ve done some deep thinking about events in your calendar, are there any that don’t align with your goals and values? If there are, reconsider attending. Often, we do too many things to please or appease others. This then becomes a stress, which can grow into resentment. If you DO choose to participate, clearly communicate your family’s needs—and that’s where setting boundaries during the holidays comes into play.

Here are some practical ways to set boundaries effectively:

  • Selective attendance: Assess your calendar and identify events that do not align with your goals and values. Be willing to decline invitations to activities that may add unnecessary stress or conflict.
  • Communicate needs: Clearly express your family’s requirements to event organizers or hosts. This can include specifying arrival and departure times, setting limits on participation, or informing others about your child’s behavioural expectations.
  • Share your boundaries: Let your extended family and friends know about your boundaries, such as your children’s bedtime or dietary needs, to avoid unnecessary conflicts and ensure everyone’s comfort.

It can be challenging to ask for what we need. But by setting realistic expectations and fostering understanding, you can minimize misunderstandings and promote a smoother experience for everyone involved.

STEP 4 – Communicate boundaries and manage behavioural expectations with your kids.

Open communication is vital to a harmonious holiday season.

Let your children know in advance:

  • When events are happening
  • Where they are going
  • Who they will see there
  • What they are expected to do
  • What they can bring to entertain themselves

Be explicit as to the order of events and how they should act. Allow them some freedom to bring their toys, book, or phone to entertain themselves if they do not feel up to participating.

An Example Of How To Set Boundaries During The Holidays

As an example, here is my holiday preparation:

Goal 1: share a meal with my extended family on both sides

Goal 2: rest and relax at home by reading a book and having a cozy drink
Goal 3: play outside with kids, tobogganing
Goal 4: visits friends
Goal 5: go out to the restaurant

I have crossed out my last two goals because it is unrealistic for me to travel to multiple locations and restaurants with my young kids. These outings leave me exhausted and are a scheduling nightmare since I prefer to maintain their routine.

Compromise: Instead, I will choose to have a call with a few friends and plan to meet in January instead.

Boundary: I will let my family know that my children need to go to bed no later than 9 PM and that they need to let me know if I should prepare an early meal.

Need Help Tackling Problem Behaviours Before The Holidays? Parent Consultations

Ready to enjoy stress-free holiday events with your kids? Learn how parent consultations with Dr. Leon can nip problem behaviors in the bud. Ensure a harmonious and joyful holiday season for the whole family.

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Frequently Asked Questions 

How can I effectively communicate boundaries to family and friends during the holidays?

Clearly express your needs and expectations, such as arrival and departure times, limits on participation, and behavioural expectations for your children. Share your boundaries in a respectful and open manner to avoid conflicts and ensure everyone’s comfort.

What if some events or activities do not align with my goals and values?

It’s important to evaluate your plans and be willing to decline invitations to events that may cause unnecessary stress or conflict. Prioritize activities that are in line with your goals and values, and consider compromising or finding alternative ways to connect with loved ones.

How can I create a more balanced and enjoyable holiday season for my family?

Establish realistic expectations, maintain routines, manage financial responsibilities, communicate plans and expectations to your children, and engage in open and honest communication with family and friends to foster understanding and harmony.

Boundaries are crucial for parents during the holidays to prevent burnout and maintain a healthy balance between family obligations and personal well-being. Establishing limits helps parents manage stress, set realistic expectations, and avoid overwhelming themselves with excessive responsibilities, allowing them to enjoy the festivities without feeling emotionally or physically drained. Additionally, boundaries enable parents to prioritize self-care, maintain their individual identities, and model healthy behavior for their children by demonstrating the importance of maintaining personal boundaries.

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. Dr. Leon provides online psychology services through the Leon Psychology Clinic.

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