Raising an empathetic child is down to the parents

Showing empathy is the result of many social-emotional skills that are developed mainly in the first years of life, says Swanie Khoo, marriage and family therapist at Relationship Matters ( Photo: Swanie Khoo
Building empathy is an exercise in patience, and time, said Gisela Guttmann, psychologist and psychoanalyst at Alliance Professional Counselling. Photo: Gisela Guttman
Looking your child in the eye and making empathy-building a priority will lead to them building good relationships
Published: 6:00 PM, March 18, 2017
Updated: 1:50 PM, March 20, 2017

SINGAPORE — We live in a world that has become increasingly social online, yet we seem to lack face-to-face contact more than ever. 

Yet, the fact is that there are many people in the world who are in distress and need our help. And parents know that it’s important to teach children to develop empathy and care for others instead of growing up to be self-centred individuals — a task that is increasingly difficult in a “selfie”-mad world.

“Empathy is the ability to feel what someone else is feeling in a situation and to respond with understanding and care. Understanding and showing empathy is the result of many social-emotional skills that are developed mainly in the first years of life,” says Swanie Khoo, marriage and family therapist at Relationship Matters ( 

Dr Chua Siew Eng, a specialist in psychiatry and a consultant at Raffles Counselling Centre, stressed the importance of having this skill. 

“Empathy is a social cognitive skill that helps one to build interpersonal relationships,” said Dr Chua. Social support and cohesion benefits one’s own health, personal life, work and community life, she added. 

“Moreover, empathy can also promote ethical understanding and prevent misdeeds, thereby allowing the individual to function within societal customs and rules,” she said.

Instilling empathy in your child should start at a very early age. 

According to Dr Chua, research shows that empathy appears to be present from early infancy. For example, infants are distressed when others cry. Empathy is clearly expressed in children who are one to two years old, by means of spontaneous helping and caring behaviour. A child exhibits empathy by giving to and sharing with others, for instance.


So, how exactly should parents begin the empathy-learning process?

Empathy starts with establishing a strong, loving relationship between the child and the parent — one where the child feels accepted and understood by the parent, said Khoo. This begins very early on.

“This is the only way a child learns how to accept and show understanding to others as he or she grows. Between six to 12 months of age, a baby constantly looks to its parents for cues of acceptance, and to gauge the parent’s reaction in a situation. How a parent responds will influence how the baby responds,” she said.

As children grow up, they also learn empathy by watching how their parents respond to others around them, she noted. 

“When we as parents show care for others, we model to them compassion for others, and to respond to others with care and concern,” she said.

One simple way to encourage and to teach children empathy is to look at them face-to-face and eye-to-eye when communicating with them. 

This is because, during such conversations, we learn to be fully present with each other and we learn to listen, which all adds to the development of the human capacity for empathy.

Do not rush it or force your child to behave in a certain way, say experts. Building empathy is an exercise in patience and time, said Gisela Guttmann, psychologist and psychoanalyst at Alliance Professional Counselling.

She suggested a more complex strategy that involves naming, recognising and validating how a child may feel. One starts by saying the following: “I understand you are feeling frustrated and angry because you did not get the ice-cream you wanted. However, you can exercise patience and get it after dinner.”

How this works is that the child hears that the parent has empathy with how they feel. This calms the child down and helps them feel understood, said Guttman. It is part of the building blocks that help them recognise the need for others to feel understood as well.

This technique can be used as early as one to two years of age. However, she cautioned that the way parents do this is important.

“Parents should keep in mind that they’re trying to teach and model positive behaviour,” she said. “So, these techniques shouldn’t be used for punitive purposes but to help children to develop confidently and to understand their own feelings, the feelings of others and how their behaviour may affect those around them.”

She added that children do usually learn quite naturally when their parents and others have strong emotions such as anger or happiness. They are able to recognise the good and bad associations related to these emotions and how it affects them, she said.

But “when you name an emotion, children start to understand and recognise it better internally and externally”, she said.

Khoo agreed, saying that encouraging kids to talk about their emotions also “creates an awareness of their emotions, which is essential to understanding what is going on when they experience a difficult day”.

“This is a way to help them to pay attention to others around them, by just being to them what you want them to be for others,” she noted.

And encouraging children to talk about their friends also encourages empathy for their peers.


Most importantly, parents should lead by example so that children pick up good habits that simply turn into a way of life. It is up to the parents to prioritise learning empathy skills, say experts.

Khoo said that one good example a parent can lead by is simply by actively participating in acts of service. And parents ought to take care to respond to others with care and concern in all situations.

Positively affirming a child when you notice them exhibiting empathy and care to a friend or another family member is always a good thing that builds upon itself, she added.

But do bear in mind that, while your aim is to encourage your child to care for others, it is important for them to look after their own needs, too.

“One thing that parents should keep in mind is that it is healthy for children to develop a good enough empathy for others but not to become ‘people pleasers’, who tend towards the other unhealthy extreme by putting too much emphasis on pleasing others to the detriment of one’s own needs,” said Guttman.