Developing empathy is a process that starts at infancy and continues throughout our life. Taking on another’s perspective can be difficult at times even for an adult, but nearly impossible for a toddler. Empathy needs to be modeled by the caring and trusted adults in a child’s life. Observing a parent showing genuine interest and concern to another family- member, enables the child to experience empathy by noting their parent’s behavior. The toddler may begin to imitate the gestures ( patting the back), or the caring looks( concern), that he observed the parent to use when comforting the family member, but not understand why. Your child is not yet empathetic, but is beginning to be sensitive to the emotions of others. That is a first step. Remember children with delay or disability might take longer, and need more models when learning about emotions and empathy.
There are many ways we, as parents and caregivers, can encourage empathetic feelings. Here are just a few:
- Model what you want your child to observe and learn.
When your child is crying; be attentive and show genuine concern. If you dismiss his feelings, he will learn to dismiss the feelings of others. When you say for instance, “Stop crying, you’re fine”, you are missing the opportunity to build the capacity for empathy. Remember, showing caring does not mean changing your limit; it just means realizing that your child is truly upset and that you understand. If you demonstrate understanding for your child’s emotion, it will help him process the situation.
- Reflect Feelings:
Listen, hear the feelings, and then say what you heard. Mirror back what the child is feeling with words: “You feel scared when the dog barks”, “you are frustrated with that puzzle.” “You get so excited when we go to the park!” Put words to the feelings a child has. Look at books and magazines and guess the person’s feelings. Make sure you relate your feelings to your child as well. Once they realize you have these feelings as well, it will help them be more comfortable with their own.
- Look for situations that lend themselves to pro social interactions and observing other’s perspectives.
When your child grabs a toy from another child, and that child cries, it is a great opportunity to narrate what happened and why the child is crying. Telling your child that “Joey is sad because he wanted to play with that ball and you took it from him.”
- Limit Screen Time
Face to face interaction is essential in understanding emotions and processing another’s point of view. Experiences are what allow us to take on someone else’s perspective. If our children are only interacting with a screen and limit actual face time, it will stunt their ability to “read cues” and identify emotions.
American Academy of Pediatrics Guidelines state:
- For children younger than 18 months, avoid use of screen media other than video-chatting. Parents of children 18 to 24 months of age who want to introduce digital media should choose high-quality programming, and watch it with their children to help them understand what they’re seeing.
- For children ages 2 to 5 years, limit screen use to 1 hour per day of high-quality programs. Parents should co-view media with children to help them understand what they are seeing and apply it to the world around them.”
Positive Relationships begin with mutual trust and respect. Genuine, caring responses to your child’s frustrating and challenging moments go along way to building this relationship.
“Developing empathy takes time. Your child probably won’t be a perfectly empathetic being by age three. Remember, empathy is a complex skill and will continue to develop across your child’s life.” Zero to Three.( Feb.1st 2016).