What is Empathy?

What is empathy and why is empathy important? Help kids understand empathy with this definition written in terms kids can understand with real-life examples kids can relate to. We’ll also look at the difference between empathy and sympathy and some resources that can help kids build empathy.

Definition of empathy

Empathy is the ability to understand how someone else is feeling or to understand the situation they are in. It is the ability to “put yourself in someone else’s shoes” and to understand the way a situation might make them feel.

A full definition of empathy has two parts: shared emotion and seeing someone else's point of view.

Empathy Definition Part one: Shared Emotion

First, empathy is about sharing an emotion with someone, or feeling the way they feel, even if you aren’t in the same situation. When you feel an emotion along with someone, even if you aren’t directly affected by whatever is causing their situation, that’s empathy.

Example 1: Have you ever felt sad with a friend just because he was sad? That’s empathy! So for example, if you feel sad with your friend because he didn’t make the soccer team (even though you aren’t affected by him not making the team)… that’s empathy. Sharing his sadness is a kind of empathy.

Example 2: Have you ever been with a friend who just got a new toy and she’s so excited about it and you get super excited too? If you are feeling excited because you know how great it can feel to get a new toy (even though you didn’t get a toy and you aren’t playing with the toy)… that’s empathy. Being excited with and for your friend is a kind of empathy.

Empathy Definition Part Two:
Understanding someone else’s way of seeing something (perspective)

The second part of a definition of empathy is about being able to understand someone else’s way of looking at a situation, even if you see it differently. We often call this “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes” and it means you see things from their point of view, or from their perspective. Having empathy means you can step back from the way you see a situation and think about how someone else might feel from their side of the story.

Example 1: Have you ever thought a game was really fun but your friend felt it wasn’t fair? If you saw your friend was bothered by the game and understood she wasn’t having a good time even though you were… that’s empathy. You showed empathy by understanding how things felt from her side of the situation.

Example 2: Have you ever noticed that your dad is frustrated while he’s tidying up some of your toys? You had fun playing with the toys and don’t mind them laying on the floor. But you think about it from your dad’s perspective and realize that he doesn’t like how it feels to have a messy space and he feels frustrated at having the extra work of tidying it up. When you look at the situation from your dad’s side of the story (from his perspective) and understand how he might be feeling… that’s empathy.

Why is empathy important?

Empathy is really important for how we get along with people. Whether you can be a good friend, get hired for a job, be successful with a team of others… all of those things depend on being able to understand how other people might see a situation and how they are feeling. Empathy is at the root of all healthy relationships. It helps you know how your actions affect others, what actions you need to take to be a good friend or teammate, and it helps you understand more about the people and the world around you.

Free empathy teaching resources:

free what is empathy worksheet
what is empathy lesson plan for character education lessons

How do you build your ability to feel empathy?

If you want to understand empathy and build your ability to understand others, here are some great tools to start. (Try this free printable Empathy Lesson Plan.)

1. Understand the concept of empathy.
These videos about empathy show people expressing empathy in real life situations.

2. Develop the ability to read facial expressions and body language.
To understand how someone else is feeling, we need to read the cues that they give us. What does it mean if someone is frowning? What if his arms are crossed? What if someone’s eyebrows are high on her forehead? A great way to build empathy is to read picture books and look at the illustrations. What cues do the characters give that reveal how they are feeling?

3. Practice putting yourself in someone else’s shoes
Find something you and a friend don’t agree on. Try having a discussion about it as if you are the other person. What might that friend say to convince you of his viewpoint?

Empathy vs. Sympathy
You may be wondering, “What’s the difference between empathy and sympathy?” Empathy is when you feel someone’s emotions or understand how they feel because you’ve put yourself in their shoes. Sympathy is when you care that someone is in a difficult situation and offer comfort, but you don’t necessarily feel anything about it yourself. For example, if your friend loses her iPad and you feel really sad along with her… that’s empathy. If your friend loses her iPad and you tell her “Wow, that's a bummer,” but you don’t feel bad yourself, that’s showing sympathy. With empathy, you have a more personal understanding or share their emotions. With sympathy you are offering comfort though you aren’t personally feeling emotion along with them.

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