Fostering Empathy in Children with ADHD

Health Writer

Empathy is the ability to see and feel another person's perspective. In his article, "Why Empathy Matters," Robert Brooks, Ph.D., states, "empathy is one of the most vital skills in any relationship and is imbedded in the mindset of the successful person." Children with ADHD often come off as self-centered and aloof. Their inattentiveness makes it seem as if they don't care what others think, feel or say. Distraction can be mistaken for aloofness.

Some children with ADHD might get constant attention; parents and teachers pay extra attention to behavior and grades. This sometimes creates a feeling that they are the center of attention. They aren't used to people paying attention to other children or are simply don't notice when they do. When a need arises, they expect it to be taken care of immediately and don't understand when other children's needs must come first.

Some people are naturally more empathetic. They have the innate ability to tune into other people's needs, wants and feelings. But that doesn't mean only those with this ability can be empathetic. It is a skill that can be learned.

The following are 9 tips to help you foster empathy in your child:

Be a role model. As parents, you are the most important person in your child's life. He or she looks to you to know how to act and how to treat others. When you treat others with respect, show sympathy when someone is sad and celebrate other people's success, you teach your child to be empathetic.

Teach your children to celebrate each other's successes. If your child with ADHD is struggling in school, you may be wary of pointing out that his sister received honors on her report card or given an academic award. You know how hard your child with ADHD works and don't want to make him feel bad. But this lets him know you don't think your other child is important enough to make a fuss. He knows that you make a big deal if he gets a good grade on one test and when you don't make a fuss for his sister, it shows him that he is the only one who is important. Be sure to praise each child and celebrate accomplishments as a family.

Talk about feelings. Let your child know what he does that makes you happy. Talk about what things make him happy and sad. Talk about your other children's feelings. Notice when others are feeling happy or sad, for example, imagine you are in a restaurant and another child drops their food on the floor and cries. You might point out that "She just dropped her food. She looks sad."

Label feelings. Acknowledge when you, your child, or others are feeling something and label the emotion. For example,: "I know you are disappointed it is raining and we can't go to the park today,." "I can see you are happy your friend Tommy is coming over to play today," or "I am excited that my friend is visiting for the weekend."

Point out when other's show empathy. Use books, television shows or real life to point out times when other's show empathy for someone else. You don't need to go into long explanations, simply point out different examples.

Teach your child how to problem-solve and deal with difficult situations. Resiliency or bouncing back from adversity helps build empathy. Help your child cope with negative emotions and disappointment by problem-solving solutions.

Emphasize that each person is an individual with different thoughts, feelings, wants and needs. Talk about how one situation can be viewed in different ways by different people, emphasizing that each person sees the world differently. Teach acceptance of different cultures, faiths, beliefs and lifestyles.

Teach that despite our differences, we have many similarities. Explain how, despite our differences, everyone feels happiness and sadness. Everyone wants to be loved; everyone feels disappointment. Explain that no matter who the person is, they have feelings.

Teach your child to simulate facial expressions of different emotions. Research has shown that if someone is sad, and you make a sad face, you are more likely to be empathetic. Practice when reading books or watching television. When someone is sad, stop and have your child make a sad face. Ask him about what he is feeling. Do this with several different emotions.


"Teaching Empathy: Evidence-based Tips for Fostering Empathy in Children," 2014, Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., Parenting Science