How to Teach Empathy to Selfie-Loving Kids

Medically Reviewed by Hansa D. Bhargava, MD on April 14, 2016
4 min read

You probably do it. If your children are preteens or older, they surely do it, too: take endless “selfies” to document life’s moments, however inconsequential. Fuss with filters to display an enhanced version of reality. And then post these curated shots to an array of social networks, chasing after new followers and “likes” for positive affirmation.

Your kids also probably text rather than talk, their devices both an instrument for, and a barrier to, true communication.

Is this growing level of navel gazing and indirect exchange promoting a rise in narcissism and loss of empathy in our culture, especially among younger generations? Are kids losing their sense of compassion and community?

Yes, maintains Michele Borba, EdD, author of UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World. Research she outlines in her book suggests a staggering 58% rise in self-centered thoughts, aspirations, and actions among American college kids across demographics during the past three decades, with a 40% decrease in empathic behavior.

“The ‘selfie syndrome’ is not entirely about photo-taking and social networks,” Borba explains. “It refers to a shift in our overall culture to hyper-individualism, a change first noted around 2000. We’ve become more competitive and self-focused with the rise of reality television; even musical lyrics that once said ‘Two hearts beat as one’ now say ‘I this,’ and ‘I that.’ In books we’re seeing far more ‘I’s’ and fewer ‘we’s.’ Kids used to want to grow up and become something, do something. Now they simply say ‘rich and famous.’”

What is the antidote to the Me-Me-Me Era? Turns out teaching empathy -- the ability to put oneself in another’s shoes and imagine how that person feels -- to children as young as age 1 or 2, and continuing to both model and reinforce empathy until they’re old enough to leave home, is key.

So how do you combat narcissism and instill empathy in your children? Borba offers these nine ideas:

1. Develop emotional literacy. In an age of texting, kids fail to recognize facial cues and voice intonation. To understand their own feelings and the feelings of others, Borba advises “regular, scheduled unplugged time. Take back the family meal. Put down the cellphone and talk. Eye to eye. So you can see and hear each other’s expressions and meaning.”

2.Make a family mission statement. “Tell your kids: ‘This is what our family stands for: You are expected to be kind. Caring. Socially responsible to others.’ Create a sign of this statement and hang it on the refrigerator, so they see and internalize it every day.” Parents must also practice what they preach.

3. Stay “other” focused. “Teach your kids to ask: ‘How would I feel as that other person?’ Ask this when you discipline. Ask them when you watch TV. Point to a character who goes through something difficult and ask: ‘What does she need to feel better?’ Ask it enough and empathy kicks in.”

4.Read good books. Introduce literary fiction, such as Charlotte’s Web, Borba suggests, with rich moral dilemmas to teach empathy. “The young adult novel Wonder is another great example,” she says.

5.Just breathe. Kids need to learn how to manage their emotions through self-regulation. “When stress builds, we sometimes all go into survival mode and turn off empathy,” Borba says. “Deep breathing is a way to get to a more mindful state. I tell kids to take slow, deep breaths from their tummy. You can teach even the youngest children this technique. It’s fabulous for teens. It helps them to chill out.”

6. Practice kindness. If you behave kindly, kindness becomes a habit. “I know of a family that instructs their kids as they’re leaving for the day to do two randomly kind things and report back at dinner. Simple stuff, like smiling at another child, or opening the door for a teacher. I promise, they love the positive reinforcement they receive. It develops a caring mind-set, and not just during the holidays. Have fun with this: Create a basket of kindness index cards and let the kids come up with ideas. Every day, tell them to pick two.”

7. Teach conflict resolution. “Team players are collaborators and problem-solvers when conflicts arise,” Borba says. Still, society can be so competitive. “I encourage younger kids to work out conflicts with games of Rock-Paper-Scissors, which teaches empathy through play. An oldie but a goodie.” She instructs older kids to “Stop, listen to their feelings, take turns telling the problem without interruption or put-downs, narrow the choices toward a solution, decide on it, shake hands -- and let it go.”

8. Stick your neck out. Children who learn moral courage become future leaders, according to Borba, who has studied the works and biographies of 30 Nobel Prize winners. “They’re the kids who can’t stand bullying or seeing another kid upset,” Borba says. Still, it can be daunting to take a stand. “The Navy Seals learn four techniques to pass rigorous training tests for challenging situations,” she adds. “Teach them to your kids. The first is positive self-talk: ‘I’m calm and in control.’ The second is ‘chunk it’: ‘I can get through the next 5 minutes.’ When those 5 minutes are done, say it again to take small steps toward conquering a problem. The third is deep breathing, which drives away fear. And the fourth is doing a mental rehearsal to visualize success.”

9. Grow a difference-maker! “Parents need to give their kids opportunities to serve and give back ... and, just as important, they need to follow their passions and encourage kids to chase their own,” Borba says. “Also, use newspapers, and not for doom and gloom; all the negative can be numbing. Find uplifting stories and read them to kids before bed to fill them with the wonder of the world.”