How to Teach Empathy to Your Baby Early on
Dear Parents (or soon to be Parents),
We all want our children to develop social skills, which are probably more important today than ever in a world filled of superficial interactions and technology that induced isolation (Covid certainly does not help it either). Thus, it is important to train our little ones social skills early on. One such skill is to feel and show empathy.
Empathy is the ability to imagine how someone else (in physical presence or virtual / in imagination) is feeling in a particular situation and responds with the respective care. This is a no easy skill, but very complex to develop. Being able to empathize with another person means that a child:
- Understands that she/he is a separate individual i.e. his own persona
- Understands that others can have different thoughts and feelings than she/he has
- Recognises and can relate to the common feelings that most people experience, such as happiness, sadness etc.
- Can imagine what response would be appropriate or particularly comforting in that specific situation
Truly understanding and showing empathy, is the result of many social and emotional skills that a baby is already developing in the first two years of her/his young life. Some important milestones include the following:
- Establishing a secure, loving relationship with parents (or any key caregiver) is one of the first milestones. Feeling as part of a community and understood by others helps your baby learn how to accept and understand others as she/he grows
- Around 6 months old, babies start using social referencing. This is when a baby will look to a parent or other loved one to gauge his or her reaction to a person or situation. For example, a 9-month-old looks carefully at her mother as she greets a visitor to see if this other person is good and above all safe. The parent’s response to the visitor influences how the baby responds. (Side note, this is also why parents are encouraged to be cheerful and reassuring—not anxiously hover—when saying good-bye to a baby or toddler at child care. It sends the message that this is a safe place and one you will have fun at)
- Around 15 months old, toddlers will be developing a theory of mind. This is when a toddler first realises that, just as she/he has her/his own thoughts and feelings so do others around her/him (but they might be different)
- Between 18 and 24 months, toddlers will start recognizing one’s self in a mirror. This signals that a child has a firm understanding of herself/himself as a separat individual. That manifests often in them referring to themselves, for instance when pointing fist at mom and dad and then themselves
There are multiple ways how parents can support their little ones in the development of these critical skills. Below we have summarise some practical tips that worked well for us and that are supported by experts in this field:
- Empathise with your baby: Speak out loud sentences like “Are you feeling scared of that dog? Actually it is a nice dog, but you are right it is barking really loud, which can be scary. I will hold you until he walks by, ok?”
- Talk about other human being / animal feelings: Speak out loud sentences like “Emilia is feeling sad because you took her toy book. Would you be so kind to give it back to her - there are many others here and it would make her happy to have it again”
- Read stories about feelings (a good sample here)
- Be a role model: When you have strong, respectful relationships and interact with others in a kind and caring way, your child learns from your example. As Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget said "experience precedes understanding"
- Use “I” messages: This type of communication models the importance of self-awareness: I don’t like it when you hit me. It hurts and is not nice of you
- Use pretend play: Talk with older toddlers about feelings and empathy as you play. Peek-a-boos and other learning toys and dolls are great ways to do so
- Validate your child’s emotions (good and bad ones): Sometimes when our little one is sad or angry, we rush to try and fix it right away, to make the feelings go away because we want to protect her/him from any pain. However, these feelings are part of life and ones that children need to learn to cope with. In fact, labeling and validating difficult feelings actually helps children learn to handle them: You are really mad that we arrived back home. I understand. It’s okay to feel mad. When you are done being mad you can choose to help me prepare a snack. This type of approach also helps children learn to empathise with others who are experiencing difficult feelings
- Evaluate the use of “I’m sorry.”: We often insist that our toddlers say “I’m sorry” as a way for them to take responsibility for their prior actions. But most don’t fully understand what these words mean. While it may feel “right” for them to say “I’m sorry”, it doesn’t necessarily mean they understand nor help them learn empathy. A more meaningful approach can be to help children focus on the other person’s feelings. This helps children make the connection between the action (shoving) and the reaction (a friend who is sad and crying)
- Above all, be patient: Developing empathy takes time. Your child probably won’t be a perfectly empathetic being by age 2. In fact, a big and very normal part of being a toddler is focusing on themselves first. Remember, empathy is a complex skill and will continue to develop across your child’s life. Nevertheless, it is important to start early to set a good foundation
As always, we hope you found this helpful and we look forward to hearing back from our growing Little Genius community. Our Genius boxes that support the above social skills and many more, you can find here.
All the best,
Erika & the Little Genius team