In our society, empathy is a critical component to helping us connect with others and interact with compassion and understanding. Being able to recognize another person's emotions and place yourself in their shoes, however, is more of a complex skill than most people realize. It is not something you either have or don't have; we can each possess different degrees of empathy, and we can also continue to enhance our capacity for empathy throughout our lives.
Even though children don't have the cognitive skills to understand empathy fully until the age of 8 or 9, parents can begin teaching empathy to their children early on. Even at six months old, babies look to parents to see how they react to strangers. However, an important developmental age is between the ages of 18 and 24 months. This is when a toddler first realizes that other people have feelings that may be different from his own, and begins to recognize himself as a separate person. At this stage, toddlers are able to soak up the social cues taught by their parents, and build a foundation of strong social interaction that can help them grow into secure, compassionate adults.
Here are some tips to help teach toddlers empathy:
1. Be what you want to see. When parents model strong social interactions with others, children watch, learn and mimic that behavior. When you show empathy to your friends, family and strangers, your children learn that is how they should respond and interact with others.
2. Involve children in charitable activities. Even toddlers can learn from accompanying you to donate used blankets and clothing to the local homeless shelter; they see recognizing the needs others have and helping them with those needs.
3. Ask your child to think of others and role play. For example, if your child shares that his friend is moving away, ask your child not only how he feels about it, but also ask him to try to imagine what his friend feels about moving away. Empathy takes practice, and the more you talk with your child and ask them to think about how others may be feeling, the more your child will begin to empathize with others on his own.
4. Validate your child's feelings. When your child is angry or upset, ask him to verbalize what he is feeling. Help your child learn to recognize and cope with these feelings, not push them aside. By learning how to be aware of his own feelings, he will be better equipped to learn to deal with others who are experiencing difficult emotions as well.
5. Praise your child when he shows empathy toward others. Even though he may not realize what he is doing at the time, by pointing out that it was really wonderful how you saw him reach out and give a hug to that little boy who was hurt on the playground, you are reinforcing the importance and goodness of being compassionate toward others.
6. Play a non-verbal guessing game. When you're at the park, ask your child to guess how the kid on the swings is feeling. "She's laughing and her eyes are wide open, I think she's happy and excited to be on the swings. What do you think?" Or, "See that boy sitting by himself with his arms crossed, looking only at the ground? How do you think he is feeling?"
7. As children get older, you can begin to engage them on a regular basis in my empathic process. Each person gets equal time to talk without interruption, and each child is invested in ideas and solutions. Everyone's feelings are considered. This process helps reinforce your basic social interaction modeling and teachings within your own family dynamic.
Teaching children empathy from a young age has many benefits, from helping them build a strong core to deflect peer pressure and preventing bullying, to helping them grow into secure adults with the capacity to have healthy, close relationships with others. Remember to have patience with your children; empathy is a complex skill that takes time to learn and understand.