Why It's Important to Nurture Empathy in Kids

Happy children in gym room in kindergarten
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There are many reasons why parents should consider teaching empathy and nurturing emotional intelligence in their kids. In basic terms, empathy is the ability to be able to put oneself in someone else's shoes and understand that person's emotions and feelings.

Why Emotional Intelligence and Empathy Matter

Studies have shown that empathy is an essential life skill. Emotional intelligence or emotional quotient (E.Q.)—defined as being able to understand one's own feelings and the feelings of others as well as being able to control one's own emotions and exercise self-control—is thought to be more important for success in life than I.Q., or intelligence quotient.

Research has shown that empathy is essential to building healthy and happy relationships with family and friends and to doing well at work (and for kids, in school). It makes sense—after all if you had a choice between working with someone who is kind, considerate, and respectful or someone who has no regard for your thoughts or feelings, who would you choose?

Empathy can also be an important factor in teaching kids what bullying is and how not to engage in bullying behavior. Teaching empathy is thus an important foundation in preventing bullying in school.

How Parents Can Encourage Emotional Intelligence and Empathy in Their Children

While some people mistakenly believe that empathy is something we are born with and therefore either naturally have or don't have, the fact is that it is a skill that can be taught. Here are some ways parents can try teaching empathy and boost their child's emotional intelligence.

  • Make sure your child's own emotional needs are met. In order for a child to be able to feel and express empathy for someone else, her own emotional needs must first be met. She must be able to count on her parents and caregivers to provide emotional support before she can provide it to someone else.
  • Teach your child how to cope with negative emotions. It's natural for kids and adults to experience negative emotions such as anger and jealousy. But a child who is taught how to handle these feelings in a positive, problem-solving way by sympathetic parents is more likely to have strong emotional intelligence and empathy.
  • Ask, "How would you feel?" Kids are naturally-geared toward empathy. Even a toddler who sees someone in obvious emotional distress is likely to show sympathy and may try to comfort that person. At the same time, young children are inherently self-centered beings. When a preschooler hits a sibling or a friend or takes away a toy they are playing with, for instance, a parent needs to explain that such behavior can hurt another person physically or emotionally. Try saying something like, "How would you feel if someone took your toy away?" or "How would you feel if someone hit you?"
  • Name that feeling. To help your child understand emotions and feelings, identify and label them as much as possible. If your child behaves kindly toward someone, such as by trying to comfort a crying baby or friend, say, "That was very nice of you to be so worried about your friend; I'm sure it made him feel much better when you were so kind to him." If your child behaves in an unkind or negative way, say, "I know you may feel angry but it made your friend sad when you took his toy from him."
  • Talk about positive and negative behaviors around you. We are constantly exposed to examples of good and bad behavior in real life and in books, TV, and movies. Talk with your child about the behavior you see, such as someone making another person sad or acting like a bully or, conversely, someone helping others and making people feel better about themselves. Discuss the different types of behavior and their effects.
  • Set a good example. Your child learns about how to interact with people by watching you and other adults in her life. Show her what it means to be a charitable person or how to be kind and loving. By helping family members and neighbors or supporting friends and others who are in need or having a hard time, you will be teaching your child how to be an empathetic person.
3 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  3. Dodaj A, Sesar K, Barisic M, Pandža M. The effect of empathy on involving in bullying behavior. Paediatr Today. 2013;9(1):91-101. doi:10.5457/p2005-114.66 

By Katherine Lee
Katherine Lee is a parenting writer and a former editor at Parenting and Working Mother magazines.