Children start showing natural signs of empathy-- the ability to understand and share the feelings of others-- beginning at about two-years old. You might see them hugging a crying friend or offering a toy to a cranky baby. However, don’t take your child’s burgeoning empathy for granted. To make sure empathic tendencies continue to develop, parents must take steps to nurture and reinforce them. Begin by role modeling empathic behavior towards your child because a child who receives empathy from others, is much more likely to be able to express it. When your child is sad or angry, recognize and validate these feelings, rather than dismissing them (“I know you’re upset that you can’t have more cookies right now but tomorrow you can have another one”).
Another important strategy is to help your child learn how to understand other people’s feelings and then do something to make the person feel better:
“Chris is sad because he bumped his knee so give him this ice pack to feel better.”
“The baby is so tired that she is crying, help me to rock her stroller to help her fall asleep.”
“Kelly is angry because you pushed her off the swing. Please help Kelly to feel better by giving her back the swing. You can have a turn soon.”
Directed creative play provides another opportunity to help your child learn how others might feel. Since the language skills of young children are not yet fully developed, they use play to learn, express and practice all emotions. Dolls are particularly advantageous for teaching empathy because a child’s play with a doll will feel much more like interacting with a real person, than play with stuffed animals, teddy bears or similar toys. Baby’s First, for instance, has created AirBaby, a lovely, life-like baby doll that is softer and far lighter than other baby dolls, perfect for small hands to carry and hug. In play with your child, you can direct the activity towards teaching empathy by offering suggestions and ideas that encourage practicing behaviors that express empathy:
“I think Baby is feeling tired, so let’s rock her until she falls asleep”
“I’m going to give Baby a big hug and kiss because she’s sad that she fell on the floor… your turn to hug her now!”
“Don’t drag Baby on the floor, it will hurt her.”
“I think that Baby is hungry, so why don’t you give her some pretend food.”
The more you encourage this type of pretend play, the more you will observe your child replicating it in real life. As a child develops verbal skills it is beneficial to teach empathy by responding to less empathic behaviors by asking “how would you feel?” type of questions. For example:
“How would you feel if Michael knocked down your tower? I bet you would feel sad, which is how he feels. Michael will feel better if you help him to rebuild it.”
“How do you think you would feel if someone pinched you? It would hurt, right…that’s why Daddy doesn’t like it when you pinch him. Kiss his boo boo and no more pinching!”
Feeling and expressing empathy requires a complex set of skills—including understanding feelings generally, being able to see the perspective of another person and being able to express feelings towards that person. For children, expression of empathy requires being able to verbalize or connect to feelings about a situation they may not have faced themselves (e.g. feeling bad for a friend who has broken a leg, when they have no personal frame of reference).
It can take into adolescence to learn to truly understand the many ways to cultivate empathy, so please have patience and empathy for your child as he or she struggles with learning these skills.
Dr. Susan Bartell is a nationally recognized child and parenting psychologist, consultant, speaker and author. For over twenty-five years she has been guiding parents to raise happy, healthy and well-adjusted children by helping them to understand the developmental needs of their child at every age and by providing strategies to help parents and children through challenging times at every stage of childhood.
To reach Dr. Susan Bartell: (516)944-5856 | www.drsusanbartell.com