My Child Is Unable to Show Empathy

Father and son talking
Parent speaking with child. (Image: Plush Studios/Blend Images/Getty Images)

Empathy -- the ability to feel for others and mentally put yourself in their place -- develops as a child ages. Because empathy is learned, you as a parent can help foster empathetic behavior and understanding. At certain ages, a lack of empathy is a perfectly normal developmental trait. If your child continues to lack empathy as he gets older, talk to his doctor for an opinion on whether or not this is normal at his age.

Age of the Child

It's unrealistic to expect a child under age 5 to truly empathize with others; a child this young doesn't yet have the ability to put himself in another person's shoes. True empathy for others normally doesn't start to blossom until age 8 or 9, according to the BabyCenter website. If your child shows no signs of empathy for others by this age or doesn't appear to understand why you find his lack of empathy concerning, he may have a psychological issue blocking his understanding.

Contributing Factors

Child with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder may have a difficult time understanding empathy. Children who are overwhelmed with too many emotional feelings from parents and caregivers may also have trouble developing empathy for others, child psychiatrist Dr. Liane Leedom explains. Children with personality disorders such as narcissism, borderline personality disorder and antisocial personality disorder may have a difficult time understanding empathy. Children with addiction issues can also lack empathy for others, according to Leedom.

Developing Empathy

You can and should participate in the process of developing empathy in your child. Even if your child is very young, you can talk to her about how nice it is to help others. While a child age 2 or 3 won't understand exactly why this makes her feel good, you can foster the pride she feels when she brings the baby a toy or comforts a crying friend. By age 5, present hypothetical situations to your child, asking how she imagines a friend would feel if someone laughed at her mistakes or made fun of her. Give your child the words for the feelings she expresses -- tell her she looks sad, is acting grumpy or looked very excited about a new toy. Model empathy and praise behaviors that show empathy toward others.

Danger Signs

Lack of empathy in the preteen or teenager can be one warning sign of a psychiatric disorder. Other signs that should lead concerned parents to look for medical help and guidance include cruelty to animals, fire-setting, frequent lying, petty thievery, defiance, bullying others, aggressive behavior, unresponsiveness to punishment and lack or remorse. Talk to your doctor if you notice these signs in your child. Consider asking for a referral to see a mental health provider or family therapist.

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