Just like walking, talking, and so many other milestones, empathy is one of those skill sets that happens on its own time frame. It simply won’t be rushed! However, also like those other milestones, creating an encouraging environment allows it to develop naturally when the time is right. You can support your child’s social and emotional skills, just as you support their physical and intellectual skills. Here are some ways to help your toddler develop empathy at home!
Photographs of Loved Ones
Of course one of the most natural ways to develop empathy is to connect with loved ones! This happens in everyday experiences in person, but you can carry that connection into reminders at home, as well. It is easy to assemble a small booklet of photographs of the beloved members of your child’s family and friendship circle. Keep this book accessible for your little one and give them plenty of opportunities to look through it. Sometimes they will peruse on their own, but you can also do this with them. Stop at each page and say the person’s name. “Here is Granddaddy. He loves you so much! And you love him. Remember when he took you to the zoo?” It is not necessary to have your child in each photo with the person, but it can be nice for them to see themselves with loved ones. You can also do this exercise with photos on the refrigerator or wall at your little one’s level.
These photographs serve as a regular reminder of all the love that your little one has in their life. Seeing the pictures of the people who are close to them will build their security and emotional connection, which serves as a foundation for their empathy and social development.
Naming Emotions as They Happen
This is one of the surest ways to help your little one grow their emotional intelligence. When your toddler is crying loudly, screaming, or otherwise making their feelings known, it can be easy to let your own emotions escalate too! But if you are able to take a step back, and name how they are feeling calmly and without judgement, you can help them understand what is happening, and slowly build a framework for what these feelings are. “I see you are crying right now because your muffin fell apart. You must be feeling frustrated right now.” It is important to keep the statements simple so that they absorb the essential information. You can also do this for positive emotions. “Grandmommy is coming over. I can see that you are excited!”
Gradually, having these experiences associated with specific language will help them to identify these feelings in others. And because they will have a rich vocabulary for emotions, they will more readily be able to relate to the experience of other people.
Naming Emotions in Books
In this activity, your little one can experience naming emotions in a more neutral setting. It gives them practice identifying feelings in others without a charged environment. This allows your toddler to continue learning the names of emotions and to practice using their vocabulary, if their language has developed to that point.
Here, as you are reading a book, you can pause several times throughout the book to point out different characters’ facial expressions. Again, it is important to keep the language simple and tolerant of all feelings. “This little boy looks sad. Look, he has a tear coming out of his eye.” Depending on your little one’s language development (and patience in that particular moment!), you may even extend the conversation at this point. “Why do you think he is sad? Did he lose his stuffed animal?”
Make sure to keep the conversation light, and not to force this into every page or even every book! Sometimes stories will just be stories. But you can utilize your books for this purpose as you observe your child’s interest level and attention.
Modeling and Lessons
Dr. Montessori developed a series of lessons that she referred to as “Grace and Courtesy” for children. The purpose of these experiences is to teach children, both explicitly and also by example, how to behave in different social settings. Your little one is never too little to benefit from Grace and Courtesy! The beauty of Grace and Courtesy is that it applies to any social situation a human being may find themselves in, and, thus, gives your child a way to understand how to translate their emotions into active empathy for those around them.
A common example that toddlers experience often is how to respond when someone has fallen. When they, or someone else falls, you can say, “Are you okay?” in a gentle voice, followed by, “How can I help?” In this situation, you can use a concerned expression, and you can even lay a soft hand on their back or arm so that they have options if they are not yet verbal. Obviously, this may very well be what you do anyway! But the key here is to be consistent, and to keep your movements slow and deliberate, so that they can fully absorb and remember what to do and how to behave when someone hurts themselves in this way.
In addition to modeling, you can also set up situations where you pretend to fall, and your little one can “practice” consoling you, or vice versa! This is a slightly more advanced exercise, because your toddler has to be old enough to understand pretend play, but you can experiment to see what they are ready for.
Grace and Courtesy translates to many different activities, and you can decide what to teach your child about how to respond to other people in many situations, utilizing their observation and their empathy to connect with others.
Final Thoughts and Further Reading on Kindness in Toddlers
Empathy arises organically in a child who has experienced love and security in their lives. Simply loving them and responding to them as a devoted caregiver will aid their emotional development. The books listed here provide additional support so that your little one’s empathy can grow naturally!
Books that may inspire empathy in children
Lots of Feelings
by Shelley Rotner
by Christopher Silas Neal