Nurturing Empathy in Toddlers

Tow year old playing in the playground at our daycare

Empathy is the ability to imagine how someone else is feeling in a particular situation and respond with care. Helping young children to develop a strong sense of empathy is beneficial because:

  • It helps them to build a sense of security and stronger relationships with other children and educators, positioning them well for learning
  • It encourages tolerance and acceptance of others
  • It promotes good mental health
  • It promotes social harmony and can reduce the likelihood of bullying

Understanding and showing empathy is the result of many social-emotional skills that are developing in the first years of life. Here are some ways you can support those skills and nurture empathy in your toddler:

  • Empathize with your child. For example, “Are you feeling scared of that dog? He is a nice dog but he is barking really loud. That can be scary. I will hold you until he walks by.”
  • Talk about others’ feelings. For example, “Kayla is feeling sad because you took her toy car. Please give Kayla back her car and then you choose another one to play with.”
  • Suggest how children can show empathy. For example, “Let’s get Jason some ice for his boo-boo.”
  • Read stories about feelings.
  • Be a role model. When 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. Sometimes when our child is sad, angry, or disappointed, we rush to try and fix it right away, to make the feelings go away because we want to protect him from any pain. However, these feelings are part of life and ones that children need to learn to cope with. In fact, labeling and validating difficult feelings actually helps children learn to handle them: “You are really mad that I turned off the TV. I understand. You love watching your animal show. It’s okay to feel mad. When you are done being mad you can choose to help me make a yummy lunch or play in the kitchen while mommy makes our sandwiches.” This type of approach also helps children learn to empathize with others who are experiencing difficult feelings.
  • Use pretend play. Talk with older toddlers about feelings and empathy as you play. For example, you might have your child’s stuffed hippo say that he does not want to take turns with his friend, the stuffed pony. Then ask your child: How do you think pony feels? What should we tell this silly hippo?
  • 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: “Chandra, look at Sierra—she’s very sad. She’s crying. She’s rubbing her arm where you pushed her. Let’s see if she is okay.” 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. Your child probably won’t be a perfectly empathetic being by age three. (There are some teenagers and even adults who haven’t mastered this skill completely either!) In fact, a big and very normal part of being a toddler is focusing on me, mine, and I. Remember, empathy is a complex skill and will continue to develop across your child’s life.