Empathy is an essential aspect of emotional development, enhancing the ability to build meaningful connections with others, regulate emotions, and promote helping behaviours. Empathy develops over time; however, it is important it is taught and reinforced in various ways from an early age. 

Children with Autism and other developmental disorders may find it more challenging to develop empathy (Schrandt 2009), as those with Autism commonly experience difficulty interpreting non-verbal communication, such as body language and facial expressions.

The good news? Empathetic behaviour can be taught at any age through modelling, prompting, reinforcement, and praise. These techniques can help children understand and learn how to respond to others’ emotions with appropriate phrases, tone of voice, body language, and facial expressions. Below are some key techniques to teach children empathetic behaviour and how to implement them. 

  1. Model Empathy 

It’s important to model the behaviour you wish for your child to learn. This demonstrates and assists in your child’s understanding of what empathy looks like, sounds like, and feels like. For example, showing compassion when your child is upset, helping others where they need it or volunteering in the community.

The more your child receives empathy, the more likely they are to learn empathetic behaviour. 

2. Build perspective-taking skills and Theory of Mind Skills

Begin practicing simple perspective taking activities to develop theory of mind. You can start by working on simple skills such as sensory perspective taking. For example, what I can see, hear, smell and feel is different to what you can see, hear, smell, and feel. You can slowly build up to understanding other people intentions and desires, to teach prosocial behaviours.  For example, if I am struggling to carry a box, I might want you to offer your help, or if I’m saying I really love your new toy, I might want a turn with it. After this you can move on to more advanced skills such understanding social scenarios. For example, if we could break down the social interaction, ‘Noah asks Sarah to play and she say’s no, then runs away’ and think about the situation from both Noah and Sarah’s perspective. We can think about how each of them would feel, what they might do next, why they might be acting in that way and what they might be thinking. 

3. Prompt discussion of emotions 

When your child is expressing emotions, such as fear, anger, or sadness, it is helpful to talk openly with your child about how they are feeling and why they might be feeling that way, rather than dismissing them. We want children to understand the causal link between our emotions, behaviours, and thoughts. Similarly ensure you talk openly about how you feel and how others’ actions influence your emotions, behaviours, and thoughts. 

It’s critical to avoid punishing your child for feeling sad or angry, and instead, show them that all emotions are welcome and help them learn to manage them in a healthy way through reflection and discussion. This is important not only to help them learn how to process emotions and to feel safe in doing so but to recognise different emotions in themselves and be able to see them in others, helping them to develop empathetic behaviour. 

4. Reinforce empathetic behaviour 

Teaching your child to look out for others whether it be at home or in the community is key for them to learn and reinforce empathetic behaviour. This may be achieved by partaking in activities with your child such as donating items to a local charity, volunteering in the community or helping someone at home with chores. Demonstrating values of kindness and care for others reinforces empathetic behaviour which your child can follow and learn from. 

5. Praise empathetic behaviour

When your child does show empathy for others, praise the behaviour to encourage more empathetic behaviour in the future. Make the praise specific by identifying the empathetic behaviour and how kind and helpful it was, so that they understand what the behaviour was and why it was positive. For example, I love how you helped your friend up when they fell and gave them a hug, they will feel happier now. 

At Freedom Social Skills, we specialise in behaviour therapy, early intervention, and social skill development, helping children with learning difficulties and special needs, in particular those with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Teaching empathy and emotional regulation skills is an important part of forming and maintaining positive relationships, in addition to leading a healthy and happy life. Reach out if you would like some help in regards to how we teach important pre-requisite skills to empathy in our social skills classes and behavioural intervention programs. 

Our goal is to provide students with a toolbox they can rely on to build and maintain positive relationships within their family, peer group and community. Contact our friendly team today for more information. 

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