Why is Empathy Important? Empathy is beneficial in almost every aspect of daily life. It allows children to have compassion for others, relate to friends, loved ones, and it has a large beneficial impact on their social development and skills.
Empathise with your child. For example, “Are you feeling worried about missing out the party if you go to sleep now? I understand how you feel, you would be disappointed to miss it.”
Engage in self-care and self-reflection. Try to find time to regularly engage in an activity—whether it’s going for a walk, reading a book, meditating or praying—that can help you avoid being overwhelmed by stress. Reflect and consult with people you trust when you’re having a hard time empathising with your child.
Talk about others’ feelings. For example, “Dominic is feeling sad because you took his ball. Please give Dominic back his ball and then you choose another one to play with.”
Suggest how children can show empathy. For example, “Let’s give Jamal a hug because he fell over and he is upset?”
Read stories about feelings. Some suggestions include:
- I Am Happy: A Touch and Feel Book of Feelings
- My Many Colored Days by Dr. Seuss
- How Are You Peeling by Saxton Freymann and Joost Elffers
- Feelings by Aliki
- The Feelings Book by Todd Parr
- Baby Happy Baby Sad by Leslie Patricelli
- Baby Faces by DK Publishing
- When I Am/Cuando Estoy by Gladys Rosa-Mendoza
Be a role model. When you show your child you have strong, respectful relationships and interact with others in a kind and caring way, your child learns from your example.
Use “I” messages. This type of communication models the importance of self-awareness: I don’t like it when you hit me. It hurts.
Validate your child’s difficult emotions. We sometimes rush to try and fix it when our child is sad, angry, or disappointed. We show a need to make these feelings go away because we want to protect our child from any pain.
However, these feelings are part of life and ones that children need to learn to cope with. In fact, when parents labelling and validate these difficult feelings, this actually helps children learn that they are not the end of the world and how to handle them:
“You are angry that you have to pick up your toys, because you want to go out to play. When you are done with being angry you and I can put them away and you can play in the garden”.
This type of approach also helps children learn to empathise with others who are experiencing difficult feelings.
Know your child. Ask your child questions. For example, what did you particularly enjoy today? What was the hardest part of your day?
Use imaginative play. Talk with older toddlers about their feelings and empathy as you play. For example, use the toys to give examples “what do you think Mr Giraffe feels when he has to wait to play on the slide, while Ms Duck plays on it?”
Think through the use of “I’m sorry.” We often insist that our toddlers say “I’m sorry” as a way for them to take responsibility for their actions. But many toddlers don’t fully understand what these words mean. While it may feel “right” for them to say “I’m sorry”, it doesn’t necessarily help toddlers learn empathy. A more meaningful approach can be to help children focus on the other person’s feelings: “Meena, look at Afia—she’s very sad. She’s crying. She’s rubbing her arm where you pushed her. Shall we go and see if she is alright?” This helps children make the connection between the action (shoving) and the reaction (a friend who is sad and crying).
Be patient. Developing empathy takes time. In fact, a big and very normal part of being a toddler is focusing on me, mine, and I. Empathy is a complex skill and your child will continue to develop this throughout their life.
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