The One Question that Will Help Your Child Build Empathy


I think if there was one trait that I would want my boys to have, it would be the trait of having compassion and empathy for others.  (And empathy for themselves too, but let’s focus on others for now.)  If we could cultivate compassion for others within the next generation, the world would definitely be a better place!


For some kids, the trait of compassion and empathy come naturally by watching others or because they are innately wired to think about others.  


For kids who are not wired that way, I want to offer one simple, but profound question that can help us become more mindful and aware of the steps involved in processing a situation with compassion and empathy:


  • Pausing to think, watch and be aware of the situation and people involved
  • Recognizing and identifying emotions of others (related to the situation)
  • Taking their perspective-taking (e.g. stepping into someone’s shoes)
  • Connect back to yourself and reflect on a situation when you might have felt that way or image what it feels like (which can be uncomfortable)   


The million-dollar question is……

“How do you think _______ feels?”


When asking this question, it allows a child to observe, reflect, and become more aware of what is going on around them, the nonverbal communication that is occurring, and the thoughts and feelings of others.


Let’s take some simple daily situations where you can ask this question to build curiosity and awareness:


  1. When you hold the door open for someone and they say “thank you”, ask your child “How do you think they felt?”
  2. When you are playing a game with the family and someone cheats, pause (and take a deep breath) and ask “How do you think we are feeling?” Extra tip: exaggerate your facial expressions so that they can look and identify them easier.
  3. If the dog is barking loudly, “How do you think Rover is feeling?”


You can also turn this into a question directed to your child to help them become more self-aware of their feelings.  If you bring them a snack and they have a huge smile on their face, ask them “can you tell me how you feel?”  Or turn it into a statement when your child does something that makes you feel a certain way: “when you gave me a hug, I feel happy” or “I feel relieved now that my chores are done”. 


Some children might find this hard to do in real-time or with direct questions related to a situation they are in with real people.  If this is the case, use books or media such as movies or TV shows.  Pause to look at the image on the pages and/or what is going on on the screen to ask these same questions.  To give you more ideas and inspiration, I have included a page from my book that has some good examples of this to practice during family “Showtime”.



One thing to be aware of is that some kids who might be a bit on the sensitive side or run anxious are hyper-focused on the thoughts of others and this question can spike too many thoughts and too much worry about what other people are thinking and feeling.  Just a word of caution- you know your children best but this is something I have had to be careful with for some of my clients and my younger son.


Getting curious about how someone feels and having these type of conversations during everyday interactions at home (during meals, watching shows, playing games, reading books, etc.) and in the community (on the road, at the store, running errands, etc.) can help pave the way in your child’s brain to build more compassion, kindness, and empathy. This ultimately fuels connection and boosts confidence and well-being.

For more information on how to sprinkle in daily conversations, activities, and ideas to build these skills and so many others related to social learning, emotional intelligence, mindfulness, and well-being, Check out this 12-month calendar with this month’s theme focused on kindness and compassion. Purchase the full 12-month theme-based calendar here for only $11.99.


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