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Instilling Empathy in Toddlers

Observe a moment in one of our classrooms. As one student identifies that another student might need help, he looks at his teacher. When she encourages him, he lends his own hand. The other student then offers help in the same way, unprompted. Notice the confidence and joy in both children as they work together.

What is empathy? And how do we as parents and teachers instill empathy in toddlers? Empathy is, in fact, a skill and learned behavior. New research suggests that empathic people are “made, not born.” While the capacity for it is inborn, it still needs to be developed, fostered and taught.

Understanding and showing empathy is the result of many different social-emotional skills that are formed during the first few years of life. Dr. Brené Brown best defines empathy: “Empathy is feeling with people” (as opposed to sympathy: feeling for people). Empathy means being able to understand and share the feelings of another. While this is a complex concept for toddlers, there are many ways in which we can help children understand how others are feeling and how to respond to their peers to show genuine care and compassion.

Try These Practices at Home:

  • Don’t sugar coat feelings. Be empathetic to your child and acknowledge their feelings. Don’t be afraid to label all their feelings, even when they are experiencing frustration or anger. Let’s face it: toddlers have tantrums. Instead of trying to make your child feel better in the moment, or reason with them, simply acknowledge that they are frustrated. It is okay to bring up feelings of sadness/anger if your child is going through these emotions.

  • Improve non-verbal communication skills. Help your toddler recognize common feelings such as happiness, surprise, anger, or sadness and what they look like. Improve your child’s face-reading skills by labeling the emotions of others frequently. Explain to them why someone else is likely feeling a specific emotion. For example, “John is feeling sad because he fell and scraped his knee.”

  • Suggest how to show empathy. Not only is it important to teach toddlers the words for their feelings, but take it a step further and teach your child ways to respond to peers. Help them anticipate others’ needs. For example, “It looks like Billy dropped his hat. Let’s go pick it up. He might be feeling cold without it.” You can also ask open-ended questions to foster problem-solving skills. For example, if a child is blocking the view of a book being read, you can say, “It appears that Jen is upset because she can not see the pages in the book. I wonder what we can do to solve this?”

  • Model empathy. When you have strong, respectful relationships and interact with others in a kind and compassionate manner, your child will learn from your example. As parents and teachers, we quickly learn that we cannot say one thing and do another, then expect children to listen to us. Young children are observing and taking in everything we do. We have a tremendous impact on our children’s actions towards others.

“The things he sees are not just remembered; they form a part of his soul.” —Maria Montessori

  • Read stories about feelings. Some suggestions include:

  • ​My Many Colored Days by Dr. Seuss

  • ​Happy Hippo Angry Duck by Sandra Boynton

  • The Feelings Book by Todd Parr

  • When Sophie Gets Angry by Molly Bang

  • Llama Llama Mad at Mama by Anna Dewdney

  • How Are You Peeling by Saxton Freymann and Joost Elffers

  • Point out similarities. Help your child discover what they have in common with other peers.

  • Avoid forcing “I’m sorry.” We often insist that our toddlers say “I’m sorry” as a way for them to take responsibility for their actions. However, many toddlers do not fully understand what these words mean. While it may feel appropriate for them to say, “I’m sorry,” it doesn’t necessarily help toddlers learn empathy. A more meaningful approach can be to help children understand the other person’s feelings. For example, “Jen, look at Sam—he’s very sad. He’s crying. He’s rubbing his arm where you pushed him. Let’s see if he is ok.” This helps children make the connection between the action (shoving) and the reaction (a friend who is sad/crying). This provides children with the support they need to develop strong self-regulation skills. End the conversation by expressing disappointment for the uncaring behavior. Then stress expectations for caring behavior in the future.

(Sometimes it is also appropriate to acknowledge the hurt child’s feelings first, removing the attention from the uncaring act, as some children engage in negative behaviors such as pushing and hitting to seek attention from adults.)

  • Teach grace and courtesy. Teach good habits, respect, and a general attitude of graciousness in your household. Examples of grace and courtesy may include: patiently waiting for help, greeting a person when they enter the room, requesting privacy, and speaking quietly indoors.

  • Instill responsibility. There are many routines you can implement at home to foster kindness and instill responsibility. These can include feeding a pet, help loading the dishwasher and cleaning up toys. Ultimately you are teaching your children the importance of collaborating and helping others; a skill that will benefit them throughout their entire lives. Remember to acknowledge when your child does something particularly helpful or kind!

  • Be patient. As a true Montessorian would say, “follow the child.” These new skills take time to learn. It is very typical for toddlers to be focusing on themselves. Be patient with your child and guide them as needed.

While some children develop empathy more naturally than others, all children need to be taught this critical skill. The development of empathy in toddlers is vital for children’s social development in later years. Empathic children will be better able to cope with conflicts and navigate difficult social situations. Teaching these skills early allows your children to grow and develop into well-adjusted adults with adaptive coping skills.

“We must help the child to act for himself, will for himself, think for himself; this is the art of those who aspire to serve the spirit.” —Maria Montessori

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