Children can learn empathy both from watching us, from experiencing our empathy for them and by watching those they notice and appreciate. When we empathise with our children they develop trusting, secure attachments with us.
Here’s our guide on how to encourage empathy in your toddler
Describe how other people feel when they are sad or when they are hurt in clear and concise language. If your child breaks another child’s toy, for example, you can remind him how he felt when one of his toys broke, and say. “That is how Danny is feeling.” Be confident and firm.
Younger toddlers may not be able to understand an explanation, so you need to show empathy. When your toddler is hurt, show him that you are sad; if he is happy, be happy with him.
Talk about actions
Say how people’s actions affect others’ feelings. For example, “Did you see how that little girl was upset when the other children wouldn’t play with her? How do you think she was feeling?”
When your child does show empathy, praise him. If he’s nice to his little sister when she has hurt herself, tell him how good he is being. Tell him that his little sister appreciates it, too.
Children need to be able to label their feelings and put them into words if they’re going to understand how others feel. Teach your child “cross,” “sad,” and “happy” and move on to “disappointed,” ”surprised,” “excited,” “scared,” and “thankful”.
Help your child learn to read facial expressions and body language. Point out facial expressions and other clues to feelings when you look at pictures together. You could also play a game of getting your child to guess the feelings you’re trying to express. Then reverse roles.
Watch for opportunities to practise empathy and make it a habit. For example, you could say, “That little girl looks lonely. Why don’t you ask her to play with you?” Or, “Daddy looks hot and tired. Why don’t you take him a drink?”
Encourage your child to learn to do lots of things well. Children who are confident and happy in school, sports, music and art are more likely to be loving and empathetic.
Examples for older children
At around the age of five, you can teach your child about empathy by talking about hypothetical problems. How would he feel if someone took a toy away from you? How would his friend feel if someone took a toy away from him? By the time your child is eight, he’ll also be able to realise that someone else’s feelings may be different from his own.