Building the foundation for empathy with your child
Parents can start teaching their children to be empathetic as early as infanthood
By definition, empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. And as your toddler is shoving his brother to the ground to snatch up a coveted toy, it is the one thing you think surely your little darling will never have.
But push aside the fears that you have a budding sociopath on your hands. After all, there are many adults who haven't managed to master empathy. That said, it's never too early (or too late!) to start teaching kids the tools to help them be empathetic.
Susan Dreyer Leon, Core Faculty and Director of Experienced Educator Program at Antioch University New England, said that while an infant or toddler may not fully grasp that he or she is supposed to be empathetic, parents can build a solid foundation toward raising an empathetic child by using a few simple guidelines consistently.
First, the best thing parents can do for their children is to be good role models when it comes to empathy, says Sandy Cormier, Early Childhood Educator who works with toddlers at the University of New Hampshire Child Study and Development Center .
"Be the person you want your child to be," she said.
Simply put, if you want your child to be empathetic, show them empathy, said Lisa Pollaro, Early Childhood Educator who works with children from infant to 2 ½ years old at the University of New Hampshire Child Study and Development Center.
That starts from day one, Pollaro said. Caregivers lay the building blocks for empathy by making connections with their infant. They do this by making eye contact, making sounds and faces together, playing with little toys together and through contact. This is where the child starts to learn cause and effect, communication, and how he or she is connected to the world and specifically other human beings.
As the child grows up and gains more skills and speech, it's important to give the child words for how he or she feels, said Dreyer Leon. Feeling reflection is a great way to do this, she said. For example, when the child is trying to build a block tower only to have it fall down over and over again, if the child is getting frustrated, say "I can see you're feeling frustrated." This is a great way to not only give the child a word for this new feeling he or she is experiencing, but the assurance that someone will be there to notice and maybe help.
"They have to feel seen and heard. To teach them empathy, they have to experience empathy," Dreyer Leon said.
Children are biologically self-centered in the early years, Dreyer Leon said. If they don't understand what they are feeling, they can't recognize it in someone else. So by helping them understand the feelings that they feel, and giving them words and opportunity to express those feelings, they can later use those feelings and ideas to relate to other children.
Pollaro also said it's OK for a parent to let their child see them get emotional.
"It's OK for a child to see you cry, it's going to happen every once in a while," she said. "It's how you move on from it. Telling them, 'I was sad, but I talked it through and now I'm feeling better,' so that they can see that it's not terrible or scary to feel sad or angry, that it's something that happens in the moment and you move on from it."
Another good habit to get into is asking the child how he or she is feeling. For example, said Pollaro, if a child falls down, don’t just tell the child, "you're OK." Instead, Pollaro said, ask the toddler, "Are you OK? It looks like that made you feel sad. Do you need a hug?" That way, it makes the child take a second to recognize how he or she is feeling and shows them some compassion at the same time.
Toddlers can also be taught the basics of empathy by examples in books and the life around them, said Cormier. This can be something as simple as when you are reading a book with a child, and asking the child to comment or name the body language shown in the pictures in the book.
It's also a good idea to take advantage of teachable moments whenever possible, said Dreyer Leon. For example, if a child takes a toy from another child and that second child gets upset, the caregiver should of course check in with the person wronged. But it's also a good idea to discuss the incident with the child who took the toy by asking the child to notice the other child's face. Does he look sad? Why do you think he's sad?
"This is not done in a way to make the child feel bad," Pollaro said, "But having them notice is important and has been fairly effective."
Pollaro also suggests practicing this technique with humor. It can make a big impact, particularly with older children.
"Pointing out, 'when you do that peekaboo it makes them smile,'" Pollaro said. "This is such a positive way to learn. …That is the start of empathy: realizing that you're affecting somebody else. That is something they can recognize in themselves and it's usually something they are sharing in in the moment because they are laughing, too."
At the end of the day though, the key to success with teaching empathy is repetition and time. Cormier said a toddler doesn't see the example in the book once and just gets it, it takes parents and caregivers continually reinforcing the message and the importance of these skills.
"This takes a long time," Cormier said. "It doesn't happen overnight. None of these things will produce an empathetic child overnight. But it gives them a great foundation."
Melanie Plenda is a full-time freelance journalist and mother living in Keene.