Raising an Empathetic Child
Posted on November 30, 2017 by CHS
Empathy allows us to intuitively understand another person’s emotions and perspective. People who are empathetic are able to form strong relationships, resolve conflicts, value the uniqueness of others, and practice kindness. People are not born with the ability to be empathetic; it is learned over time.
“As human beings, our job in life is to help people realize how rare and valuable each one of us really is, that each of us has something that no one else has—or ever will have—something inside that is unique to all time. It's our job to encourage each other to discover that uniqueness and to provide ways of developing its expression.”
- Mister Rogers
Regardless of a child’s age, adults can build a foundation for developing empathy by setting an example. The way you speak to people, listen to them, and interact with them is how your child will also behave. By modeling a helpful attitude, and treating people with courtesy and respect, you create a model for your child of how you expect him to behave. The following sections are tips for parents and educators that are working to support the development of empathy in children.
Infants and Toddlers
Infants are born ready to learn. They might not understand everything you do and say, but as you repeat actions and words, your infant will begin to connect them with behaviors. As their language skills increase you will notice them responding to known verbal and non-verbal cues. For example, if you always say, “It’s time to eat” before meals, after a few weeks your infant will display signs of excitement such as wiggling her body or vocalizing to show that she knows what is going to happen.
The first step in developing empathy is to label emotions and narrate events. Before children can cue into the emotions of others, they need to understand the names and characteristics of emotions first. They also need to learn how to manage their own emotions before they can fully understand how someone else feels. The Center for the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning (CSEFEL) offers resources for families and educators for helping young children learn to identify emotions.
Help infants and toddlers learn to soothe themselves when they feel uncomfortable, upset, angry, or frustrated. Learning to find comfort will help them think of ways they can help comfort others in times of distress in the future. Offer infants and toddlers comfort items like a soft blanket or toy that they can hold, squeeze, and pat while they calm themselves down. Talk to them about what is happening. For example, “I see you are crying and upset. I am going to put this blanket in your hand so you have something to help you feel safe.” Young infants will need time to learn how to soothe themselves, and may need you to hold them while they hold their comfort item.
Toddlers are still developing their language and will frequently resort to hitting, pushing, or biting to express themselves. When these incidents occur, draw the toddler’s attention to the child who was hurt and talk about how he feels. “Look, Lily is crying because her arm hurts where you bit her. Let’s get some ice and you can help her hold it on her arm.” This will help the toddler connect his behavior to how the other child feels, which is the first step in learning how to see something from someone else’s perspective. Offer toddlers opportunities to help be caregivers. They can take care of a baby doll, help water plants, and read books to grandparents. These activities help toddlers understand the concepts of nurturing and being a kind helper.
Preschool Aged Children
Continue building your child’s emotional literacy by identifying emotions and teaching him how to manage his feelings in socially appropriate ways. Visit your local public library to check out books about feelings that you can read and discuss. Help your child learn to calm himself down by using simple breathing exercises. Once your child learns to identify and manage his own emotions, he will develop a better understanding of how other people feel.
Set aside some time for simple activities that help your child identify objects that are similar or different. One easy way to do this is to give your child a small bucket or a basket, and ask her to find things that are red and bring the bucket back to you when she is done. Spread the items out on the floor and ask her, “Are all of these things the same?” Talk about the attributes that the objects have in common, and then look at the ways the objects are different. Developing a child’s ability to spot similarities and differences teaches your child to understand and value uniqueness; not just in objects, but in people as well. You can also sort buttons, baseball cards, nature items, plastic animals, and books.
When you visit the library, choose books that illustrate a variety of cultures, ages, and abilities. If you are not sure what to choose, the librarian can assist you, or you can select books from this list. If there are cultural events, concerts, or festivals in your community, attend them with your child and show enthusiasm for learning about the different languages, music, or clothing you see there. Make sure your child has the opportunity to socialize with other children who come from diverse backgrounds. When he asks questions about the differences he notices in others, answer them honestly, without judgement. so that you are modeling tolerance. Ask your child “What if…” questions that spark conversations about empathy. For example:
- “What if the flowers start to wilt and turn brown? What is happening to them? What do they need?”
- “What if your friend said, ‘I don’t like you!’? How would you feel? What would you do or say?”
- “What if your skin was a different color?”
- “What if you only had one arm you could use?
- “What if you didn’t understand what anyone was saying? How would you talk to them?”
- “What if we had a fish? How would you take care of it?”
Every time you have thoughtful conversations with your child, you have the chance to help guide his ideas about himself and others. For more tips on talking to your child, read our “Communication: Positive Communication with Your Child” brochure.
Encourage your child to develop friendships. Through friendships your child will learn to care about how someone else thinks and feels. He will learn to negotiate, compromise, consider the perspective of another person, try different solutions for solving disagreements, work as a team, and empathize. Click here to read ideas for how you can help your child learn about friendship.
School Aged Children
By the time your child enters elementary school, he should be able to identify his own emotions and manage his emotions independently most of the time. Remember that “most of the time” does not mean always! Everyone has difficult days once in a while, and if your child is dealing with powerful changes in his life such as moving, losing a loved one, experiencing financial hardship, or living with adults who do not get along, then you will see this reflected in his behavior and ability to empathize with others.
Continue talking about emotions and having “what if…” conversations. Your child needs to know that it is okay to ask you about anything. Invite your child to perform acts of kindness and help others. If you visit your city’s webpage, you can search for youth volunteer opportunities, or help him to find ways to be helpful in his own neighborhood. Perhaps he can help an elderly neighbor by carrying out her trash, mowing her lawn, or sitting on the porch and talking to her when he sees she has no visitors.
Consider getting a family pet or starting a garden (if you have the space and are financially able to do so). Your child can then help care for the pet or garden. Encourage him to help his family community by doing chores around the home. Explain how he is helping you so that he can understand your perspective. For example, “Thank you for washing the dishes while I gave your brother a bath. Because of your help, I now have time to sit and read books with you.”
To learn more about how you can raise an empathetic child, visit KidsHealth® or view the resources below.
References and Resources:
- Start Empathy (Resources for teaching children empathy): https://startempathy.org/
- CSEFEL Resources for Families and Educators: http://csefel.vanderbilt.edu/index.html
- Resources for Teachers about Empathy from KidsHealthhttp://classroom.kidshealth.org/search?q=health%20series%20empathy&getfields=Subject&btnG=search&search=y&client=khc_q&output=xml_no_dtd&gsaRequestId=7457070404200936186&proxystylesheet=khc_q&sort=date%3AD%3AL%3Ad1&wc=200&wc_mc=1&oe=UTF-8&ie=UTF-8&ud=1&exclude_apps=1&site=classroom&filter=0&ulang=en&ip=172.19.100.5&access=p&entqr=3&entqrm=0
- Empathy: the Key to Social and Emotional Learning by Katrina Schwartz: https://ww2.kqed.org/mindshift/2013/01/30/empathy-the-key-to-social-and-emotional-learning/
- E Is For Empathy: Sesame Workshop Takes A Crack At Kindness by Cory Turner: http://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2016/10/17/497827991/a-sesame-study-in-kindness
- Empathy Activities for Preschoolers from the Education Center Development, Inc: http://preventingbullying.promoteprevent.org/8-empathy-activities
- Teaching empathy: Evidence-based tips for fostering empathy in children by Parenting Science: http://www.parentingscience.com/teaching-empathy-tips.html
- How to Help Your Child Develop Empathy by Zero to Three: https://www.zerotothree.org/resources/5-how-to-help-your-child-develop-empathy