9 Habits That Build Children’s “Empathy Muscles”

by | Sep 18, 2020 | Character and Moral Intelligence, Emotional Intelligence, Empathy and Kindness, Parenting, Selfish and Spoiled, UnSelfie

Science-Backed Ways to Build the 9 Habits of Empathy 

Did you know that teens today are 40 percent less empathetic than those 30 years ago? That is tragic news for our children and society. For starters, it hurts kids’ moral character, and leads to bullying and racism. Also it correlates with more cheating and less resilience. And once kids grow up, a lack of empathy hampers their ability to collaborate, innovate, and problems solve-all must-have skills for the global economy. It’s time to start an UnSelfie Revolution where kids think WE, not ME.

Empathy is integral to kids’ current and future happiness, success, and well-being. And the good news is, the immensely human trait of empathy is a strength that can be nurtured and taught at any age (just like learning to ride a bike or speak a foreign language). I’ve spent the last decade studying empathy, observing dozens of classrooms and interviewing top researchers, and found that empathy can be cultivated. I also discovered that empathetic children use nine essential habits to help them navigate the emotional minefields and ethical challenges they will inevitably face throughout life. These nine habits also guide their empathic urges and inspire them to help others. And all nine are teachable and culled from the latest science in child development, neuroscience, and social psychology.

UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World  provides the blueprint to help you instill those crucial abilities that reap the Empathy Advantage until they become lifelong habits in your child. the book is now in paperback and provides over 300 simple and proven ways to instill those habits. Corresponding with the essential habits of empathetic children, here are nine proven “Empathy Builders” you can use to get started in helping kids flex and grow their “empathy muscles” and—eventually—hardwire empathy into a lifelong habit.

EMPATHY HABIT 1: Emotional Literacy so children can recognize and understand the feelings and needs of themselves and others

Empathy Builder: Become “feeling detectives. The next time you and your child go to the park or run an errand to the mall or grocery store, encourage your child to “investigate” how other people might be feeling. Ask questions like: “Listen to the boy’s voice. How do you think he feels?” “Look how that girl has her fists so tight. See the scowl on her face? What do you think she’s saying to the other girl?”

EMPATHY HABIT 2: Moral Identity so children will adopt caring values that guide their integrity and activate empathy to help others

Empathy Builder: Help your child create a “caring code.” Talk to your child about the kind of person he wants to become, how he wants to make others feel, what he stands for, etc. Using his answers, help him develop an age-appropriate personal mantra such as “I’m a caring person,” “I know it’s nice to be nice,” or “I reach out to help others.” To help him remember his mantra, suggest that he use it to make a poster for his room, as his screensaver, etc.

Also read: 8 Ways to Help Children Develop Caring Mindsets

EMPATHY HABIT 3: Perspective Taking so they can step into others’ shoes to understand another person’s feelings, thoughts, and views

Empathy Builder: Switch sides. Next time there’s a sibling battle or friendship tiff, don’t offer advice or instructions. Instead, ask the parties involved to “reverse sides.” You say, “I know you’re upset, but you two can figure out how to solve it. Both of you tell me what happened, but from your sibling’s side.” They listen to each version, and then you ask: “Now that you know both sides, how will you work this out so it’s fair to both of you?”

You might also be interested in 3 Ways to Teach Perspective Taking.

EMPATHY HABIT 4: Moral Imagination so they can use literature, films, and emotionally charged images as a source of inspiration to feel with others

Empathy Builder: Write your own ending. The next time you read a book with your child, pause before turning the last page and ask her to make up the ending before hearing the writer’s version. Ask questions like: “Imagine you’re the character right now. What would you do?” “If you were the author, how would you end it?” Then finish the book and vote on which version you prefer: your child’s or the writer’s.

See: 100 Movies for Kids 5-17 That Teach 9 Crucial Empathy Habits

and 50 Books for Kids and Teens That Teach Empathy

EMPATHY HABIT 5: Self-Regulation to help children learn to manage strong emotions and reduce personal distress so they can help others

Empathy Builder: Learn the ABCs of stress management. Self-management is crucial for empathy. (Remember, kids who are focused on their own strong emotions such as anger or anxiety, as well as kids who become easily over-aroused by other’s needs, are less able to recognize other’s feelings and/or calmly think of how to help.) Teach ways to cope (and to decrease the empathy gap) with these ABCs of stress management:

A = Aware. Teach your child to tune in to his feelings. “What am I feeling?” “What do I need?”  I have to take care of myself so I can help others.”

B = Breathe. Focusing on deep, slow breaths can reduce stress and help your child better manage his emotions.

C = Calm. Find what helps your child decompress: exercising, being with others, journaling, listening to music. Encourage him to make this his go-to action or activity when he is feeling stress or other strong emotions.

Empathy Builder: Forecast and fight bad feelings. Stress comes before tantrums, meltdowns, and outbursts. The earlier your child recognizes that she needs to calm down, the better able she’ll be to manage her emotions. Start by helping your child recognize the signs that she’s stressed. Does she get a stomachache? Does she feel jumpy? Next, show her how to calm down. (Young children especially need to be shown and told how to decompress; this is not a natural instinct!) Focusing on taking deep breaths, sitting in a quiet place, listening to soothing music, and exercising are all good strategies.

See also: Signs of Stress in Children and Teens

EMPATHY HABIT 6: Kindness to increase children’s concern about the welfare and feelings of others.

Empathy Builder: Use the “Two Kind Rule.” Kids learn kindness by comforting, helping, caring, sharing, and cooperating, not through hearing lectures. An easy way to help kids practice kindness is using the Two Kind Rule: “Say or do at least two kind things to people each day.” To nurture empathy, the deed must come “straight from the giver’s heart,” be delivered “face-to-face” (at least at the beginning so the giver sees the recipient’s response), and be delivered without expecting anything in return. Help kids see how to put this rule into practice by brainstorming possibilities together: say hello and smile, share something, help around the house without being asked, give a high five to a deserving person, ask someone who looks lonely to eat or play with you, etc.

See also: Fun Ways to Help Kids Learn Kindness Power.

EMPATHY HABIT 7: Collaboration to help children work with others to achieve shared goals for the benefit of all.

Empathy Builder: Don’t hold your “we.” Self-absorption diminishes empathy, so intentionally switch your pronouns (when appropriate) from “Them” to “Us” and “Me” to “We” when talking with your kids. “What should we do?” “Which would be better for us?” “Let’s take a ‘We’ vote to find out what we choose.” It may sound simple, but subtle pronoun changes can go a long way toward helping kids realize that life should revolve around “Us” and “We” not “Me” and “I.”

See: 25 Ways to Help Kids Make Friends and Learn to Collaborate

EMPATHY HABIT 8: Moral Courage emboldens children to speak out, step in, and help others.

Empathy Builder: Start with HEART. Many kids will need to grow their courage—and perhaps their communication skills—before they’re ready to publicly stand up for others. So teach: “It’s never too late to show a friend you care” with ways to comfort someone at the scene . . . or later. (Over time, putting these strategies into practice will help kids develop the confidence they need to become Upstanders!)

H = Help. Run for first aid. Call others to help. Pick up what’s broken.

E = Empathize. “He did that to me and I was scared.” “I know how you feel.”

A = Assist. “Do you need help?” “I’ll find a teacher.” “I’ll walk you to the office.”

R = Reassure. “It happens to other kids.” “I’m still your friend.” “Teachers will help.”

T = Tell how you feel. “You didn’t deserve that.” “I’m so sorry.” “I know it’s not true.”

EMPATHY HABIT 9: Compassionate Changemaking and Altruistic Leadership Abilities motivate children to make a difference for others, no matter how small it may be.

Empathy Builder: Help kids make a difference (and encourage direct contact). Children who see altruism as part of who they are and how they live their lives are more likely to become Changemakers. Provide regular opportunities for your child to infuse altruism into her life. Remember that empathy is best activated face- to-face, so select projects that put your child in direct contact with the recipient. It could be bringing toys to the children’s shelter or delivering books to a senior citizens’ home. Then, keep it going! A one-time-only service project is usually not enough to instill an empathic mindset. Turn giving to others into a lifelong habit.

See also:9 Ways to Cultivate Courage and Help Kids Find their Hero Within

The ideas in this post are from my book, UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All About Me World that describes how to cultivate the Nine Crucial Habits of Empathy, and 300 strategies parents and teachers can use from toddlers to teens to do so.

Empathy can be cultivated, and doing so will give our children a proven social, emotional, moral, and cognitive advantage I’ll be sharing those strategies in this blog. It’s time for a national conversation and to start an UnSelfie Revolution! I hope you join me!

Follow me on at my website, Michele Borba or on Twitter @MicheleBorba

Dr. Michele Borba is an internationally recognized educational psychologist and expert in bullying, social-emotional learning, and character development and has spoken to over one million participants on five continents. She is a Today Show contributor, featured expert on Dateline, The View, Dr. Phil, NBC Nightly News, CNN, MSNBC, Dr. Oz, Dr. and The Early Show. Her latest books are UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About Me World. and The 6Rs of Bullying Prevention.For more information:  micheleborba.com, and Twitter @micheleborba