I’ve just received an email from the mum of a young girl who has obsessive-compulsive disorder. Her unusual behaviours have led to excruciating bullying by her classmates.

Despite being intelligent, funny, and personable, 13-year-old Mia is never included by the other kids. She is desperately lonely. Mia’s peers can’t see beyond her differences and so she never gets the opportunity to relax and shine. They never see the best of her.

We all hope that our own kids would do better in this situation and that they would be empathetic and kind. But would they? Often kids’ empathy is overpowered by other drivers, like fitting in with peers or a need to feel in control.

If we want our kids’ empathy to be strong enough to overpower those drivers, we need to be proactive… Role model and actively teach empathy.

How do we do that?

1. Start by defining empathy

There are two types of empathy:

Affective empathy is the kind we are all born with. This is where we naturally react to another person’s display of emotions. If someone is upset, we feel upset too. If someone smiles, we instinctively smile too. We don’t all have affective empathy in equal amounts, but we all have it.

Cognitive empathy is deliberately trying to feel what another person feels in order to better understand and relate to them. This is the type we can develop in our kids.

Defining empathy begins the process of self-awareness. Kids will start to wonder, ‘Am I an empathetic person?’ and ‘Could I be more empathetic?’

2. Using your imagination is good, listening is better

Often when we encourage our kids to be empathetic, we say, “Imagine how that person might be feeling. How would you feel?”. Psychologists call this mentalising and it is a great start. However, it is impossible to really know how another person feels.

We cannot truly walk in the shoes of others because we’ve often had vastly different upbringings and experiences to them. In presuming we know how they think and feel, we are imposing our view of the world onto them. We are also teaching kids that everyone thinks like they do, which simply isn’t true.

If we really want our kids to empathise, we need them to listen rather than imagine. Expose them to the stories and opinions of people who are different from those in their family or neighbourhood.

Teach kids to listen to understand. That means teaching them to be totally present, to listen with open hearts and minds, and to make room for the ideas and stories of others. If what they hear isn’t true for them, it doesn’t mean it is wrong.

Obviously, the best way to listen to different people is to speak with them. However, that isn’t always possible. So, feed kids a rich diet of books, films, interviews, podcasts, art, and music that explore the lived experience of those people your kids don’t usually meet.

3. Break open stereotypes

Stereotypes are lazy shorthand. If you want kids who are empathetic and don’t make unrealistic, unkind assumptions about others, break open the stereotypes they encounter. Name them, explore where the stereotypes come from, and how they disadvantage those people. Start with gender and race stereotypes, they are everywhere.

In breaking down stereotypes, highlight the amazing achievements of the members of maligned groups. However, also make clear what we have in common.

There is beauty and connection in the things that make us the same, just as there is in valuing the things that make us different.

4. Stop clearing the way so your child can live a problem-free life

Many kids have never really had a big problem, so they don’t understand that other people do, and they don’t know how to respond empathetically. This is often the unintended consequence of our parenting.

We need to step back and let our kids encounter challenges. Let them experience disappointment and failure. Let them deal with conflict. You can still coach them from the sidelines but let them lead an imperfect life that teaches them empathy.

Kristina Morgan is a clinical psychologist at Lourdes Hill College. She says, “It is great for kids to have problems at school age because when they are young those problems tend to be:

a. Low stakes,

b. Supported by adults, and

c. A learning opportunity.

“Don’t make the world bump-free for your child. If you do, they will find it hard to appreciate that other people struggle.”

5. Equal rarely means fair

If you’ve ever poured glasses of cool drink for a group of kids, you know they believe fair means equal. Heaven help you if one child gets any more than the others! However, out in the world, what is equal and what is fair are not always the same, and our kids should be helped to reach that understanding.

There are so many resources that illustrate the head start some people get in the race of life. (I’ve included one below) If you are reading this you have been dealt pretty good cards and I’m sure you know it. You can read, you have the internet, and you have the privilege of time to spend reading about how to raise a more empathetic child. That doesn’t mean everything in your life has necessarily gone smoothly, but you have advantages and so do your children.

You may recognise your privilege, but your kids probably don’t. Teach them and let them know we need to give people who are at a disadvantage a lift. Being born with advantages doesn’t make you better than others. It just makes you lucky. Guide kids towards being appreciative, not entitled!

6. Bad things don’t always happen to someone else

Our teenagers should be aware of the problems that impact our society. Talk to them about mental health, domestic abuse, homelessness, and other issues. We don’t want them to believe these things only happen to certain types of people. They can happen to anyone.

Kristina Morgan says, “In order to ‘keep kids safe’ parents often act as though issues don’t exist, as though the world is tidy. Kids end up unprepared, unempathetic, and a bit entitled. We need them to know, bad things can happen to anyone. Being genetically, geographically, and socio-economically lucky doesn’t make you immune or better than anyone else.”

7. Look at people who are different from you…and say hello!

I once did an interview with actor Julia Hales. Julia is a ground-breaking member of the Down Syndrome community. When we spoke, she had just launched her stage show You Know We Belong Together which later played at the Sydney Opera House

Julia told me that the hardest part of living with Down Syndrome is other people. She said when she is in public, people will look at her, recognise that she is different from them and so quickly look away. It makes her feel unseen… and it hurts.

We need to look at people who are different from us and insist our kids do the same. Instead of saying, “Don’t stare”, try “Say hello”. Not being seen is a cumulative injury. It is a trauma that builds over time and is difficult to recover from.

Final thought….

Actively teaching empathy can be quite confronting because it forces us to slow down our thinking and examine our own assumptions, behaviours, and prejudices. However, it is a gift we give ourselves and our kids, because if a person fails to see the light in others, they live very small, dark lives.


This article was first published on Lourdes Hill College’s Inspiring Girls blog