Building Empathy Through Reading


By Kenzi Dirks, M.A., R.C.C.


“We really emphasize saying sorry,” a concerned foster mother said to me, “when Milo hurts someone we always make him apologize.”

“How is that working?” I inquired, genuinely curious.

“I don’t think he means it,” she responded.

Children who have experienced complex trauma can have increased difficulty in understanding their own emotional experience (  To empathize—get inside another’s emotional experience—can prove even more challenging. Milo’s parents were very well intentioned when they asked Milo to apologize. At eleven years old they expected him to spontaneously own up to his mistakes and recognize when he had hurt someone. But because of Milo’s early traumatic experiences, Milo did not yet have the capacity for this.

If Milo had wronged his little sister it soon became a battleground: mom and dad tensed up as they approached the scene of the crime, and Milo became instantly defensive and explosive. Asking Milo to apologize was not working for a few reasons. Firstly, Milo could not understand how what he did was impacting others. This is the work of building empathy. Second of all, the whole process was too stressful for him. As soon as Milo saw that disappointed look on his foster parent’s face, his alarm system starting firing (to see why decreasing stress is appointment check out this post: Thirdly, Milo’s shame-based identity was being triggered when he was asked to admit his wrongdoing.  By admitting to bad behaviour, he felt, at a gut level, that he himself was bad.

All three of these factors needed to be addressed, however, we started by building Milo’s empathy. We at CTR have a standard intervention that we implement with every single child. Every. Single. Child. It is not anything fancy or cutting edge. It is simply this: having an adult read to a child every day. Let’s be very clear, this is not a time to practice the child’s phonics acquisition or test them on spelling and grammar. This is a no-strings-attached bonding time, in which an adult reads to the child.

Milo’s foster parents were tasked with reading one-on-one to Milo at night for 20-30 minutes. Holidays, sick nights, or sleepovers at grandmas were no exception. More than merely reading, I encouraged Milo’s family to begin developing his empathy skills by talking to him in a very specific way. An organization called EmpathyLab is dedicated harnessing the power of stories to bring about an empathy revolution in homes, schools and communities.

They suggest 3 top tips when discussing a story:

1. Talking about the book’s content differently. Focus more on the character and the character’s feelings than the plot. Then ask follow up questions which help the child think about the character.

2. Give feelings a name. Children with a wide feelings vocabulary are great at sharing how someone else is feeling. As you talk, pick up on new words for feelings. Share what they mean, e.g. “I’m wondering how Dogger is feeling…maybe a bit lost and alone?”

3. Using open questions. These are questions that can’t be answered with just a yes or a no. this helps start a discussion giving children a chance to express their own thoughts.


For more information from EmpathyLab click on the link below:
For books that EmpathyLab recommends click on the link below:

About the author

Kenzi Dirks

Kenzi has a background in systemic family therapy and is a registered member of the BC Association of Clinical Counsellors. Kenzi recently moved to the UK with her hubby and enjoys seeing people who once felt stuck experience growth. As an Educational Assistant, she worked for seven years with children who have attention difficulties or who are on the autism spectrum.

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