How can I foster empathy in my child? Any parent of a toddler knows it isn't easy to teach social skills or help build emotional awareness; however, this is yet another parenting moment where the outcomes far outweigh all the efforts along the way. Research has shown that helping your child develop the means to empathize will benefit their social, academic, and future career successes for many years to come.
For young children understanding and sharing the feelings of another is a new skill and one that should be taught more than just around the time the turkey is about to come out of the oven. Learning how to empathize is a very complex skill to develop; it means that your toddler is learning he/she:
Here are a few strategies that can help in your journey of fostering empathy with your little one:
Model empathy with your child. Demonstrating empathy (Are you feeling scared right now because of that dog?) and talking about others' feelings (Your sister is sad right now because you took his toy away) are important steps in illustrating empathy. Part of modeling with children includes making suggestions for how they can handle a particular situation. Talk through an empathic response (Let's give your sister another turn and ask her politely to borrow the toy when she is done) as a means to guide your child in considering what responses might be comforting in the situation.
Read stories about feelings. Quality children's books - expressively written and richly illustrated - introduce people and emotions to children in a safe and non-threatening way. Children often relate to a particular situation or character through a story and can experience real life situations with the turning of the page. Picture books provide an opportunity for your toddler to recognize the feelings of the character from listening to the story and using picture clues. Lastly, story time allows for discussion in a calm setting and an opportunity to rehearse what can be done when the same situation arises for your toddler.
Use pretend play. Developing empathy is more than just knowing how to share. Take time during play to convey your feelings about how your toddler's actions make you feel. For example, when your child passes a toy for you to play with, you can share how that makes you feel. Likewise, when you see your child coveting the toy of a sibling or another toddler, take advantage of the opportunity to say, "Humm, I see that you are really interested in that toy so-and-so is playing with." If your child expresses the desire to play with the toy you can model by saying, "Let him/her know you want to play with it, and that you would like a turn when they are finished." The emphasis in the play situation shifts to respecting other's time with a toy rather than solely about sharing. Toddlers often find waiting hard, and in these situations we can validate their emotions by providing the appropriate verbal cues, such as "It's hard to wait...I know you wish you had that toy right now."
As with many skills, developing empathy takes time. Be patient in the learning process and be consistent with your expectations. After all, a normal part of being a toddler is focusing on me and your child isn't likely to be turned away from college because they struggle to learn empathy as a toddler.
ABOUT CHRISSY K
I am mom to three boys (one with several life-threatening food allergies) who will never own too many picture books or create Pinterest-worthy snacks. Simply Chrissy K is a place to find helpful tips on parenting that stem from my work with families as an educational consultant and parenting coach.
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