Before you had children, you may have seen the TV show, Kids Say the Darndest Things. If so, you might have thought your child would NEVER say anything like that. Then it happened. Perhaps you were horrified as you watched your sweet baby snatch a toy from a friend and scream, “MINE!” Or while pushing them in the cart at the grocery store, your toddler asked in their loudest voice, “Why does that man have BIG ears?” Embarrassed that everyone around might think you raised a little monster, you were probably wishing the floor would open up and swallow you whole. 

So how do you teach your young child to be empathetic? 

These 5 building blocks of empathy can set you both up for success.

1. Model empathy for them.

Empathy is the ability to imagine how someone else feels in a particular situation and respond with care. This is a tricky skill to develop, even for adults. Your child learns empathy from how they watch you model it to those around you. How you respond is often the most powerful teaching method because empathy is more caught than taught. One of the best places to start is by showing empathy for your child. Instead of seeing their behavior as being difficult, empathize with what they are feeling. (Even in the middle of a meltdown!)

2. Be realistic in your expectations. (It’s just a phase.)

Don’t worry; this is a normal phase. Laying a foundation for your child to be empathetic towards people is a good thing. However, it can be challenging during this particular developmental stage. Your 3 to 5-year-old is in the middle of what Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget called the preoperational stage. This stage’s hallmark is selfish thinking, meaning it’s not easy for them to see things from anyone else’s perspective.

Additionally, you may notice their favorite words are Me, Mine, or “I can do it MYSELF.” All of these behaviors are developmentally appropriate. At this stage, children are like reporters who report on what they see and experience without filters.

Since they like to report, ask questions to help them identify their own feelings and others’ feelings in the process.

3. Celebrate them when they show empathy.

When you see your child correctly identifying emotions, praise them. They may even ask, “Are you sad?” If you are, it’s ok to acknowledge your sadness. You can use that as a teachable moment to help them recognize and name emotions correctly. They’ll learn that expressing a variety of emotions is ok. (Here’s a great list of feeling words to get you started.)

4. Do things to nurture empathy.

It may be difficult to actively volunteer together at this age, but it’s easy to make treats or care bags (or something else) to show people they matter. Hand them out with your child to the homeless or someone who needs a pick-me-up as you drive through your community. The bag can include various items such as gift cards to restaurants, hand sanitizer, band-aids, snack bar, a small bottle of water, etc. 

5. Take time to develop empathy. It’s a process.

Empathy is developed over time, but everyday moments are teachable ones. Remember, this skill grows and expands as your child grows. They won’t be perfect at showing empathy, especially at this age. Honestly, it may be difficult to be empathetic all the time. This is a learning process that goes with your child into their teen years and beyond.

It’s hard for parents not to feel overwhelmed with the responsibility of teaching your little one so many things to help them become a productive member of society. Those things may include how to walk, how to talk, and ways to expand their vocabulary. And that’s in the first year!

Ok, stop and take a deep breath. 

Raising an empathetic child is a process that starts with your example; it’s the primary way you teach them how to understand others and treat them with kindness. They’re watching you. Just remember: more things are caught by our kids than are taught by us. You can do this.

Read other blogs to help you on your journey here:

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