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ASK MOM: Daughter lacks empathy, mom worried about her indifference to suffering

Nov 24, 2023 01:57AM ● By by Mary Follin and Erika Guerrero

Drawing by Suzanne Johnson

THE PROBLEM: I fear my 9 yo daughter doesn’t have a heart. She’s not mean to people, but she seems to be missing something when it comes to empathy. Our family dog died a few weeks ago, and she didn’t even seem interested, let alone sad. All she wanted to know was if we could go to the beach now that Yippee was gone. (We had to skip our vacation because the dog was very ill.) One of the children in her class lost his mother, and apparently he cries a lot in school. My daughter calls him a baby. Not to his face, but to me. She doesn’t purposely go out of her way to hurt someone, but she doesn’t particularly have a sense about their suffering, either. I’m trying to teach her compassion, but it isn’t getting through to her. Any ideas?

MARY SAYS: I understand your concern about your daughter's apparent lack of response, but she simply may not have a natural inclination toward putting herself in another’s shoes. She truly might not ‘get it.’ After all, childhood is by nature self-centered, which is one reason it’s important to teach children to be otherwise, especially if they don’t appear to be growing out of it on their own.

Your daughter feels comfortable enough with you to state her honest opinions (a good thing), but you are also free to state yours. 

Rather than focusing on your daughter’s lack of feeling, share with her how you feel about the events you describe. After all, you can’t tell your daughter how to feel, but you can offer her a new lens. 

If it feels appropriate, tell her how you would have felt if your own mother had passed when you were only nine; how much you would have missed having her greet you when you came home from school or not knowing where to turn when you felt lost or scared. Describe the tightness in your chest when you say this and ask her if she can imagine losing you.  

This sounds like difficult territory to wade into, but you may need to go there for a child who lacks the imagination to go there herself. Encourage your daughter to put herself in another person’s story and try to picture walking where they have been. 

Ask questions like: “How do you think your classmate feels?” or “If you were going through the same thing, how would you like other children to help you feel better?”

Developing empathy is a gradual process, but it can also fail to develop without a little nudge. Be patient! Try not to judge your daughter for her for her lack of empathy. Instead, share yours, and give her a hug whenever you see a spark that tells you hers is coming to light. 

Erika is away on maternity leave.

ASK MOM offers parents two perspectives on today’s child-rearing issues—one from a mom with grown children (Mary), the other from a mom raising a small child (Erika). If you’re looking for creative solutions, or your mom isn’t around to ask, drop in! 

If you have a question for Mary and Erika, we’d love to hear from you! [email protected]

Read more ASK MOM advice.


Mary Follin is the author of Teach Your Child to Read™ and ETHYR, winner of the Moonbeam Children's Book Award and the Gertrude Warner Book Award. She is mom to two grown sons and enjoys sharing her more seasoned perspective  with parents of younger children. 

Erika Guerrero is a freelance hair and makeup artist, Erika K. Beauty, single-mama to one amazing boy, and author of She’s Not Shaken, a blog offering hope and encouragement to women in all walks of life.



Suzanne Johnson, mother of five children and grandmother of eight, is an illustrator, book cover designer, and author of the Realms of Edenocht series.



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