If you’ve ever had the privilege of being in a room with many toddlers, then you know play dates never go as smoothly as you hope. Before the rendezvous is over, the children are likely to shed a few tears over a toy no one can agree to share. Despite your best efforts to teach your little one manners, the ability to truly understand that snatching a toy from another child’s hands is hurtful is a cognitive skill that does not fully develop until the elementary school years.
How Children Gain Empathy
Your child’s first introduction to empathy is the soothing coos, gentle rocking and nourishing milk you provide from the day she is born. When you respond to her cries, you demonstrate that you understand something is wrong and want to fix it. These actions set the foundation for building empathy skills. As your child grows, she will closely study your reactions to others, so it is crucial that you model empathetic behaviors. How you respond to an ethnic joke or if you judge people on their differences can have a lifelong effect on your child’s ability to relate to other people. Additionally, responding negatively to your child’s innocent behaviors with time-outs and threats to leave will impede her learning process.
Empathy Requires Life Experiences
Every parent wants their child to do well in school, have friends and grow up to be charismatic leaders in their working lives. These skills require empathy -- the aptitude to pick up on what someone else is feeling and the facility to offer sensitive support. Toddlers and preschoolers simply haven’t developed the cognitive capacity yet to vicariously understand another person’s feelings. They don't have the experiences or language skills to fully comprehend the complex range of human emotions.
Once your toddler begins to gain awareness of self, typically around 2 years old, you can begin teaching lessons about how other people’s actions affect her. Instead of scolding your child for stealing a toy, calmly ask whether she remembers how it felt when someone took her toy away. Help her label the feelings she might have experienced, such as frustration and sadness, and help her think of ways she could have felt better, such as finding another toy to play with. The more opportunities your child has to relate the emotions she encounters with how others treat her, the more capacity she has to be empathetic.
Around 3 years old, your child begins to develop an awareness of others, which allows her to understand how her actions affect others. While a 2-year-old might offer you her favorite teddy bear because this is what you do to make her feel better, a 4-year-old might dig out your favorite book because she knows this is what makes you feel relaxed and happy. Teaching empathy to your preschooler starts with helping her understand how she can make others feel better. If she kicks over her friend’s carefully crafted castle, ask how she can make her friend who is crying happy again. She will need gentle prompts at first, such as offering an apology and helping to rebuild the castle, but with enough opportunities, she will begin to discover her own creative and appropriate ways to be a good friend.