Empathy in Children Who Have Experienced Trauma

Empathy in Children Who Have Experienced Trauma


We have been focusing on why empathy is a good skill to have and how to help children show empathy. Since even babies seem to show early empathy, we might expect all children to be able to show empathy. Right?

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. For children who have experienced trauma, it can be a struggle to show empathy. These kids might not have been in situations where they could learn empathy from adults.  Or their past experiences might have caused them to “shut down” their own feelings. So it may be harder for them to develop this important skill. But by understanding why empathy might be harder for these kids and what to do to encourage it, we can help children to overcome this effect of trauma.*

One critical thing to remember is that although we talk about empathy like it is one skill, in order to be able to be empathetic, children have to master a number of other foundational skills first. These include being able to control their own feelings and behaviors (self-regulation) and being able to name other people’s feelings. If kids can’t do these things, they are going to have trouble with empathy. And, not surprisingly, self-regulation and recognizing feelings are skills that are also often negatively affected by trauma. So, even with an older child, you may need to start at the very first step of learning self-regulation skills. And that’s okay. Empathy is something that develops in children over time. If a child did not get a chance to develop these foundational skills earlier in his life, he will need the time and adult support to do it now. It is a process. Also, please be aware that if a child is not in a stable, safe environment, learning any of these skills may be very difficult.

Below are some steps in building the skills necessary for empathy. Start with the first steps and move forward. Also, for any child who has had traumatic experiences, professional counseling is always an option that should be carefully considered and the suggestions below should not take the place of such counseling.

  1. Help the child learn to regulate his own feelings and behaviors. This is a critical task that takes time. We have some tips on specific ways to do this here and here. The important thing to remember is that children who cannot control their own emotions are not going to be able to stop and think about what someone else is feeling. So asking a child to have empathy before you have helped her to be able to manage her own feelings won’t work (for any kid).
  1. Help the child to name his and other people’s feelings. If a child has had to “shut down” his emotions in the past, or if no one helped the child to learn about emotions early in life, he just may not be able to understand how someone else is feeling. As we talked about last week, being able to recognize emotions is key to being able to show empathy. Check out our specific tips for teaching children about feelings here. Remember that this skill takes time to learn, even for older children. A key point when working with children who have experienced trauma is not to ask them to remember past negative events and emotions as examples. It is likely that those emotions were overwhelming for the children and this will not help them to build new skills. Instead, stay in the present and start with neutral or positive emotions. Then work forward to emotions like sadness and anger. Reading stories or pointing out the emotions of characters in movies or tv shows can be really helpful because these characters are a bit removed from the child. Reflecting the child’s feelings can also be very helpful, especially when you also point out the cause of the feeling, like “Wow! You were really happy when your friend gave you a turn on his iPad.” Or, “I can see that you are getting really frustrated with your homework when you clench your fists. Let’s take a break for 5 minutes.”
  1. Be very specific about what empathy is. Last week we talked about how to teach empathy to young children. Regardless of their age, when children are still building the skills for empathy, you may need to be very specific–just like with young children. Also, if a child has not experienced much empathy from adults or has experienced lots of negative emotions, it might not make sense to her to feel what another person is feeling. And it may be too threatening. This is one reason why the suggestion “Think about what someone else is feeling” may be particularly important for these kids. They don’t have to feel another person’s negative emotions (or even joy), they just have to think about them. This both tells the child what to do and makes the experience potentially less scary.
  1. Be specific about the benefits of empathy. If a child has experienced a lot of negative, scary events and has not seen adults express empathy, he might not understand why he should show empathy to other people. So you need to explain very practically why this is important. That could sound like: “When you think about what someone else is feeling, then you might be able to help them feel good. And that is friendly. When you are friendly to other people, they will be friendly to you.
  1. Reinforce empathy. It is also very important to reinforce these children for showing empathy because it can be very hard for them. So name it “You were thinking about what Johnny was feeling when you helped him pick up the books he dropped.Reinforce it: “Great job showing empathy!” And give a reason why it’s important: “I bet that that made Johnny feel better. I bet he thinks that you are really friendly.”

Children who have experienced trauma can face a number of obstacles in developing positive relationships. As adults, we can help them to develop the skills–like self-regulation, emotion recognition, and empathy–that will help them to have better relationships with other children and adults.

*It is important to note that not all children who have experienced trauma will have difficulties with empathy. It may depend on the type of trauma and the child’s age. For example, in one study of children who had experienced a massive earthquake in China, 9-year-olds were more likely to be generous after going through the event, while 6-year-olds were not.


Image: © Vadreams | Dreamstime.com


Katherine Pears
Dr. Katherine Pears is a senior scientist at Oregon Social Learning Center (OSLC). She earned her Ph.D in clinical psychology and has worked with OSLC since 1998. Katherine is the principal investigator and co-developer of the Kids In Transition to Schools (KITS) program. Currently, she oversees all the clinical and research activities for KITS. When she’s not in her office, you’ll find Katherine in the kitchen whipping up her latest creation or outdoors hiking a scenic trail.


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