Empathy is a critical skill for people of all ages, helping to foster relationships and create stronger bonds. But unlike many skills, empathy is not something that develops all on its own -- according to Brigham Young University, empathy must be learned. So plant those seeds of kindness and understanding early; when it comes to empathy, you are your child's best teacher.
1. Model Empathy
As with so many behaviors, your child will get his first lesson in what it means to be empathetic from watching you. Clue your preschooler in on how you're feeling, and be sensitive to both his emotions and those of people around you to demonstrate that everyone experiences different feelings. So instead of saying, "Don't do that again!" when your child kicks you, tell him, "It really hurts when you kick me." And rather than brushing off his feelings of fear, sadness or disappointment, show him you understand and care. Ask, "Are you feeling afraid of the thunder? Thunder can be scary because it's so loud. But it's only a sound, and it can't hurt you. Let's cuddle together, then we can turn on music and listen to that instead."
2. Identify and Validate Feelings
Before a child can begin to understand her friends' feelings, she needs to understand her own. Think of your preschooler's emotional ups and downs as opportunities to teach her how to identify her feelings; as she grows, that skill will help her understand how her actions affect other people, reports M. Sue Bergin of BYU. So when she cries because her big brother hit her, tell her, "You must be feeling really sad. It hurt a lot when Alex hit you." Later, when she gets frustrated and hits her playmate, remind her of her own feelings about being hit by saying, "Remember when Alex hit you? You felt so sad. That's how Christina feels now."
3. Discuss Feelings During Playtime
Because young kids learn through play, the games and stories you engage in with your child offer easy opportunities for teaching empathy. Tell your child, "I think I hear your baby doll crying. She must be feeling sad. Maybe she needs a hug from her mommy." Reading stories together is another way to get your child thinking about emotions. Choose books that focus on feelings, or simply discuss the characters in the stories you already own; ask your preschooler, "Why do you think that puppy looks so sad?" or "Do you think you'd be angry just like this boy if someone took away your train?"
4. Discuss Other People's Feelings
As your child begins spending more time around other people, you can help him develop empathy by pointing out feelings and discussing ways to make others feel better. The youngest preschoolers may need more coaching, while slightly older kids might come up with ideas of their own in these situations. So when your 3 year old's playmate cries when her mom leaves, tell your child, "Do you see Sarah's tears? She must be feeling really sad. Come on, let's go give her a hug to make her feel better." And when your 4 year old's friend can't seem to hit the wiffleball, say, "Henry looks really frustrated. What could we do to help him?"