Empathy is the ability to understand someone else’s emotions and imagining what they might be thinking or feeling. It is a very complex skill to develop. Having empathy means that a child can do the following things:
- Understand that they are their own person
- Understand that others can think and feel differently
- Recognize feelings that people can have: happiness, sadness, anger, etc
- Are able to imagine how someone might feel in a particular situation
- Can imagine what response would be comforting and appropriate
What You Can Do to Help Toddlers Develop Empathy
- Empathize with your child: For example, “Are you feeling scared of that dog? He is barking loud. That can be scary. I can hold your hand until he walks away.”
- Talk about others’ feelings: For example, “Joe is sad because you took his toy. Please give him back his toy and you can choose another toy to play with.”
- Suggest how they can show empathy: “Ashley is sad because she got a booboo. Let’s get her some ice for her booboo.”
- Read books about feelings: Some suggestions include:
- Be a role model: When you interact with others in a kind and caring way, your child learns from your example
- Validate your child’s difficult emotions: When our child feels sad or angry, we often rush to try and fix it right away. While this comes from an instinct to protect our children from pain, these feelings are a part of life that children need to learn to cope with. Identifying and validating these feelings helps children learn how to handle them. It can also help children learn how to empathize with others who are feeling these emotions.
- Use pretend play: For example, you may have your child’s toy hippo say he doesn’t want to share with his friend, the cow. Ask your child: How do you think the cow feels? What should we tell the hippo?
- Think through the use of “I’m sorry:”We often insist our children say “I’m sorry” as a way for them to take responsibility for their actions. But many young children don’t fully understand what “I’m sorry” means. While it may feel right to have them apologize, it doesn’t necessarily help them learn empathy. It may be more helpful to help children focus on the other person’s feelings and what actions we can take to comfort them.
- Be patient: Developing empathy takes time! It’s a complex skill and will continue to develop across your child’s life.
Adapted from “How to Help Your Child Develop Empathy.”