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How to Nurture Empathy in Children with ADHD: Practical Tips for Parents and Teachers

June 6, 2023
Table of Contents

    Can empathy be taught? The answer is yes! However, teaching empathy to kids is more than just modeling these behaviors. Various strategies and educational activities can be implemented to help your child develop empathy and other important emotional skills.

    This article will define empathy, the link between attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and empathy, ways to teach empathy to children, and tips for supporting emotional development in your child. Keep reading to learn more!

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    Definition of empathy

    According to Psychology Today, empathy is the ability to recognize and understand others feelings, thoughts, and emotions. Empathy generally includes the ability to "put yourself in another's shoes" and take another person's point of view rather than your own.

    Empathy is crucial for developing and fostering relationships, and making morally-based decisions. It is an important aspect of the human condition and allows us to establish rapport with another individual.

    Why is it important to teach empathy to children with ADHD?

    An ADHD child may struggle to connect socially and this can be due to a multitude of reasons such as ADHD children demonstrating poor impulse control, lacking focus and attention, having difficulty regulating or expressing emotions, as well as interrupting others in conversation.

    Therefore, helping a child build empathy is extremely important as they build relationships and navigate through life experiences.

    The Link between ADHD and Empathy

    As a parent with an ADHD child, it is important to understand the connection between ADHD and empathy. For your child to build healthy relationships, they may require a little extra help with developing their social skills and learning how to manage big emotions that arise throughout their childhood.

    Understanding the connection between ADHD and empathy

    ADHD has been thought to complicate emotional development and an individual to develop social skills. This is hypothesized to be due to the prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain important for judgment and decision-making, taking longer to be developed in individuals with ADHD.

    With the prefrontal cortex developing slower, emotional skills such as understanding and showing empathy can also become delayed in children with ADHD.

    The impact of ADHD on social skills development

    Many children with ADHD might struggle to regulate their emotions effectively, ultimately impacting their ability to make friends and develop socially. In addition, kids with ADHD might also lack the self control that is necessary for waiting their turn on the playground, sharing their toys with others, and understanding how others may be feeling in the moment.

    Since children with ADHD tend to have difficulty labeling and understanding their own emotions, they are likely to have trouble understanding others emotions and recognizing when their peers are feeling frustrated or angry.

    Children with ADHD might act impulsively, be hyperactive and distractible, and have difficulty understanding social cues, affecting their abilities to make and maintain friendships.

    How to Teach Empathy to ADHD Child

    If you notice that your child lacks empathy and you are curious about how to teach this skill to your child, keep reading to learn more! There are a variety of different strategies that can be employed to help teach empathy to your child. This includes role playing activities, storytelling, labeling emotions, and modeling empathetic behavior.

    Role-playing activities

    Labeling and teaching emotion through play is an effective way to develop empathy in your child. There are a variety of games and activities that can help children learn ways to express and understand emotions.

    • Suggested Activity: Consider playing "emotions charades" with your child. In this game you will take turns acting out various emotions and guessing what feeling is being acted out. This is a great way to instill emotional skills in your child and help them identify with various feelings.
    • Suggested Activity: Come up with various scenarios with your child. Ask your child to think of ways to help the individual in the scenario. Ask your child, "what do you think they are feeling right now?" "Why do you think they would be upset?" This game will help your child become more in tune with their feelings and put themselves in someone else's shoes to understand the other child's feelings.


    There are numerous books available that teach and model empathy to children. Reading a story, with the basis being empathy, will help your child build awareness and identify with the characters in the stories.

    As you read stories, you can also ask your child what they think the character is feeling and what various facial expressions in the stories might mean. This is a great strategy to develop empathetic behavior and help your child relate to how others might be feeling.

    Emotional labeling exercises to own emotions

    Labeling feelings and identifying them as they arise is an important pillar to emotional development. If your child lacks emotional regulation and engages in outbursts, consider identifying with their emotions by using "I" statements and helping them use these statements in real time.

    For example, if your child is upset because they were asked to share a toy with their younger sibling, try modeling appropriate "I statements" such as: "I can see that you are feeling angry about sharing, but it is not OK for you to yell at your younger sister."

    The more children are able to identify with their own emotions, the more likely they are to understand and consider the feelings of others.

    Suggested Activity: practice identifying emotions by flipping through a magazine and having your child identify how the individuals in the photos might be feeling. You can also practice by making different emotional faces at your child and having your child identify each emotion.

    Modeling empathetic behavior for younger children

    Children are like sponges. They soak up the environment and the words of others around them. Keeping this in mind, practice modeling empathetic behavior for your child to help them learn empathy and develop appropriate social skills.

    A parent or caregiver must be a good role model and portray what empathy looks like by modeling the behaviors, actions, and words. Children look for cues from their parents on how to act around others. Children are capable of learning a new skill, such as how to show empathy, if a parent is willing to model and demonstrate compassion and kindness themselves.

    Encouraging perspective-taking

    As a parent, it is important to emphasize with your child that everyone sees the world in a different way. However, that doesn't go without saying that your child won't have the same feelings as others. It is actually very likely that they have felt similarly to other children their age. Help your child understand that their feelings may be similar to others around them or they may be very different.

    Encouraging perspective-taking is a helpful way to practice empathy and help your child understand the view of others. This is a necessary skill for developing friendships, maintaining relationships with family, and being successful in school and in life.

    Tips for Supporting Empathy Development in Children with ADHD

    As for the development of any skill, there are a few tips and tricks that can be utilized to support empathy development in children. First and foremost, it is important to create a supportive environment for your child. Children also thrive in a consistent environment that includes a daily routine, with positive reinforcement strategies in place.

    Creating a supportive environment

    As a parent, it is important to foster an emotionally and physically supportive environment for your child. If your child feels that they can count on you for that support, then they are likely to develop stronger and more secure relationships with others.

    In addition, a supportive environment will allow your child to safely express and process big feelings, especially as they navigate through tough times and face challenges in life. Therefore, be there to listen to your child and empathize with them as they deal with new emotions.

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    Positive reinforcement

    Positive reinforcement involves reinforcing the positive or desirable behaviors in order to increase the likelihood of it reoccurring in the future. Therefore, by positively reinforcing to your child why they demonstrate compassion or engage in empathetic behaviors, you are likely to reinforce this behavior so that it will occur again in the future.

    There are a variety of strategies for practicing positive reinforcement. Parents can positively reinforce behaviors by providing praise, words of encouragement, affection, and tangible rewards, to name a few.

    Challenges and Limitations

    As a parent, you are bound to run into some challenges. Raising a child with ADHD can be full of surprises and obstacles, but it can also be full of its rewards. There are an abundance of challenges that might arise as you teach empathy to your child with ADHD and keep reading to learn about various strategies for overcoming these challenges.

    Common challenges when teaching empathy to children with ADHD

    As you begin to teach your child the importance of learning empathy, there are a few challenges that can arise. For example, children with ADHD tend to be hyperactive and act impulsively, making it challenging to teach them important skills when their attention is constantly fluctuating. In addition, hyperactivity can make it hard for kids with ADHD to focus long enough on another individual to fully understand their emotions.

    Due to an ADHD kid's short attention span and poor self control, they may seem to lack empathy or compassion for another person, which isn't necessarily true. It just means these kids need extra help learning to recognize and respond to other's feelings.

    If some strategies just aren't sticking with your child, it is OK to change things up. It is important to be patient and consistent as you teach empathy to your child and help them develop important real life skills. The more you practice empathy, the more your child is likely to pick it up!


    Children with ADHD might have difficulty understanding and connecting with others due to an inability to understand empathy and how others might be feeling. This is especially true if individuals have trouble identifying the feelings within themselves. Luckily, empathy skills can be learned and fostered in children. Give your child opportunities to demonstrate compassion, identify with others emotions, and relate to their peers.

    By reading stories, engaging in role play activities, being a good role model, and encouraging perspective taking, you are helping your child with ADHD develop stronger empathy skills and develop emotionally. Being a parent can be full of its rewards, but it doesn't come without its stress. Be patient with your child and model what it means to be not only a good friend, but a good person. Lead by example and your child will find more success in school, friendships, and life.


    Dr. Carrie Jackson, PhD

    Carrie Jackson, Ph.D. is a licensed child psychologist, speaker, and author working in San Diego, California. She has published over 20 articles and book chapters related to parenting, ADHD, and defiance. Dr. Carrie Jackson received her Ph.D. in Psychology, with a specialization in Clinical Child Psychology, from West Virginia University in 2020. She completed her predoctoral internship at Rady Children’s Hospital through the University of California, San Diego. She then completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Nationwide Children’s Hospital before returning to San Diego, California to open her private practice.


    Dr. Carrie Jackson, PhD

    Carrie Jackson, Ph.D. is a licensed child psychologist, speaker, and author working in San Diego, California. She has published over 20 articles and book chapters related to parenting, ADHD, and defiance. Dr. Carrie Jackson received her Ph.D. in Psychology, with a specialization in Clinical Child Psychology, from West Virginia University in 2020. She completed her predoctoral internship at Rady Children’s Hospital through the University of California, San Diego. She then completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Nationwide Children’s Hospital before returning to San Diego, California to open her private practice.