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As parents, we are always hopeful that our parenting has provided our children with the skills required for them to flourish. But what does that really mean, and how do we know what aspects of parenting are going to help ensure this happens?

Research tells us that being emotionally connected in our world is one very important way our children develop positive self-esteem and build positive relationships. As parents, this is a great place to start. Whilst we are hopeful our children develop with individual strengths and capabilities, without the capacity to connect and empathise with others, they may become very isolated and alone in the world. 

A common hope therefore, would be to ensure our children grow with the ability to make meaningful connections with others to completely flourish! While this sounds feasible, how does it happen, and what can we as parents do to help?

Living in this technological existence, one would think that connecting to others is easier. Whilst this may be the case technically, the art of human connection requires much more than seeing a face or words on a device. Cooperative social interaction is critical for human social development and learning. For example, face to face interactions involving eye contact are actually essential to the developing brains of our children. Those experiences where we are face to face with our family and friends interacting and communicating, are crucial times for our children to learn about themselves, their own emotions, and the emotions of others.

Research tells us that empathy is one of those vital ingredients that children need in order to build connections, appreciate others and develop awareness of alternative perspectives. Unfortunately, without the ability to empathise, the connections we make may be superficial and shallow, or may not happen at all. This ability to ‘walk in other people’s shoes’ is a vital social skill and is crucial for establishing positive relationships. Empathy allows us to behave with compassion, and enables prosocial and helpful behaviours that benefit everyone. If our children are lacking empathy, they will be unable to connect and will have difficulties making friends or maintaining friendships. Therefore, fostering a culture of empathy with your child at a very young age may in fact be one of the most important gifts you could give them.

What is empathy? Three distinct processes that describe empathy include the ability to understand and share others emotions, reason with varying perspectives, and have the desire to help when someone is vulnerable or distressed. These traits may appear natural and simplistic, however, they do not develop automatically and are shaped by a child’s personal experience, culture, environment and parenting. With technology being at the forefront of our lives, parenting now more than ever plays a vital role in helping our children develop important social-emotional-intellectual skills. Developing skills in empathy and understanding, will benefit everyone by building more positive, connected and caring relationships.

So how can we help our children be more empathetic?

Make Talking About Feelings a Natural Part of Conversations

  •  Identify feelings by naming them and encourage your child to talk about why they are feeling that way.
  • Allow your child to feel their feelings and offer ways for them to manage them. For example, provide simple strategies like using breathing exercises when frustrated or anxious.
  • Provide your child with the time and space they need if they are not ready to talk, this shows respect for their feelings and processing time.
  • Model self-care and self-reflection to your child. They learn so much from what they observe of our own behaviours as parents.

Be a Responsive Parent Who Empathises with Your Child

  • Communicate effectively by listening attentively. Turn off the television, put the phone down and pay close attention to what is being said and communicated both verbally and nonverbally. Speak positively and without judgement, help your child be solution-focussed in their approach. For example, “It sounds like you are feeling frustrated by your friend’s behaviour? What do you think would help?”.
  • Know your child and take the time to notice how they are feeling. Talk openly about their body language and facial expressions.
  • Ask questions daily about their day. For example, “What was the best part of your day today?”, and “What are three things that you’re grateful for today?”. 
  • Ensure you are responding to your child’s emotional needs by acknowledging and respecting their feelings. When we empathise with our children they develop trusting, secure attachments with us. This way we are modelling a caring response.

Model Caring for Others and Make it an Expectation in Your Family

  • Talk about being kind and encourage actions of kindness and thoughtfulness. For example, “What did you do when your friend was sad?”.
  • Develop a culture of an appreciation of difference through your conversation and perspective of the world. Model this in the way you communicate.
  • Encourage a sense of fair play during interactions. A fair solution involves sharing, taking turns and compromising. This encourages the idea that their desires aren’t more important than those of others.
  • Ask your child to contribute around the house and to practice gratitude to those around them. This helps them become more aware of others and what they do for them. 


  • Simone Cook

    Simone is an experienced educator, counsellor and mother of three who has worked for 30 years in both primary and secondary schools. Simone has a Bachelor of Education majoring in Health and Physical Education and a Masters in Guidance and Counselling and has held various positions in North Queensland schools advocating for the health and wellbeing of all students. Simone currently works as a Guidance Counsellor at Ryan Catholic College.