5 Ideas for Helping Your Pre-teen Learn and Practice Empathy

Did you know that social-emotional development needs change for your child after elementary school? The pre-teen years are among the most critical in a child’s growth for developing an empathetic radar. Being able to process multiple feelings at once, within oneself and regarding others, is significant during these middle school years. Due to this continuous development, parents are encouraged to teach and reinforce social-emotional skills, including empathy.

But first, why is empathy important?

Empathy and sympathy, often used interchangeably, are quite different. Sympathy refers to the feeling of pity or sorrow for the situation of another, whereas empathy involves placing oneself in the emotional footsteps of another. It allows us to understand — or attempt to understand — how others are feeling and be more intentional in our interactions with others. 

In today’s culture, comprised of self-focused individuals, it is easy for pre-teens and teenagers to disregard the benefit of interpersonal skills and interactions. At PCA we partner with parents to provide a community and culture which fosters your child’s empathetic radar daily. 

Here are 5 ways to help your pre-teen develop and practice empathy:  

  1. Talk about some of the bigger issues affecting your community and/or the worldWorld hunger. Homelessness in your town or city. Diversity of relationships. Caring for God’s creation and environmental stewardship. Encourage your child to spend time thinking about the implications of those issues, how God sees these issues, and how we can help address them.  
  2. Serve others. Together we can point pre-teens to extend beyond their felt empathy and transform it into real action. Remind your child of the importance of serving others and encourage him/her to find an opportunity to serve. We have several ways to do so at PCA, e.g., food drives, Operation Christmas Child, and other opportunities. We encourage you to assist your child in engaging in your church’s local outreach. Moreover, both closer to home and more immediately impactful, pre-teens can help a family friend or classmate in time of need.  
  3. Encourage your child to engage with peers at school and in your local communities who offer differing perspectives. As you model this at home and we model it at PCA, we will together foster the understanding that no two people think alike or have the same experience. Individually, and as a school community, we will build an empathetic culture that reflects the Christian faith in quiet, humble action.  
  4. Continue to be a role model. Displaying empathy in your own life, humbly and without fanfare, shows your child the heart behind your behavior – why you do what you do. This positively influences your child’s thinking and heart, leading to greater empathy.  
  5. Read. Immerse your child in the world of characters, where they react to the narrative, and simulate real life relations. Through reading, your child learns to acknowledge and empathize with stories that are not their own. PCA has many rich resources in our libraries; we would certainly like to hear your favorites.  

“Building Christian Character and compassionate community requires us, across the grades, to increasingly see the interests of others. God sees and graciously meets our needs, and calls us to do the same with all those around us,” states Mike Runey, PCA’s Head of School.  “PCA aims to be a place where we partner with parents to extend faith, which extends to action. Doing this, together and over time, enables us to build, sustain, and whenever necessary, rebuild, a healthy school culture and community. This is all enabled by a commitment to teaching empathy to your children. Guiding our middle schoolers through this growth area is both exciting and challenging.” 

In a diverse world, no two people carry the same story. Yet, empathy is the key to understanding, even when personal, cultural, or social differences are stark. Through nurturing and intentional teaching, your pre-teen can become empathetically strong.