I have a two-year-old daughter. She is amazing. She loves art, dollies, and dogs. She likes to dance and sing. She hates to nap. She’s ok with most vegetables. She has major tantrums, but is still the biggest sweetheart around. She is getting pretty good at remembering to say please and thank you. Being her mom is an adventure, a mostly joyous day-to-day journey full of ups and downs.
I recently participated in a short parenting activity where I wrote down 10 qualities or capacities I hope my daughter develops. I included a number of ideals like self-love, curiosity about the world and others, good manners, etc. When I reflected later I realized most of these ideals came down to one thing: empathy, the capacity to relate to and understand someone else’s experiences, thoughts, and feelings.
I know from my work as a Marriage and Family Therapist, and from my education that people who hone their empathy skills have better relationships with family, friends, and colleagues, enjoy their work more, are more likely to volunteer and participate in their communities, and are better at things like compromising and negotiating.
I know that empathy would be a great life-skill for my daughter to develop! However, she is only two years old! It is easy to dismiss any need for me to help her develop empathic skills now. She isn’t even capable, yet, of understanding such an abstract concept! Many of you may feel the same way. So just how does empathy develop? And what should we be doing about it?
Timeline for empathy development:
- Birth: baby absorbs the emotions around him (he hears another baby cry, he will cry in response).
- The baby absorbs soothing comforts from caregivers and gradually learns to soothe himself.
- 9 months + the baby begins to mimic the emotions he witnesses (will smile when smiled at).
- 2-3 years the toddler becomes aware of his own feelings, but is limited in managing his emotions when overwhelmed (hence tantrums!).
- 3-4 begins to recognize other’s feelings, and can mimic offering comfort.
- 5 can understand other’s feelings and offer comfort (he is still limited in his understanding and skill).
- Empathy continues to develop throughout life, but the first 5 years of life are the cornerstone for that development.
So now what? What do I do with this information? Here are some ideas:
· Model empathy in your relationships.
· Teach your children about their emotions, including vocabulary.
· Accept your child as an emotional being; realize all emotions have purpose.
· Give your child opportunities to observe others interact.
· When sharing, remind your child how they felt when someone did or didn’t share with them.
· Encourage good manners.
· If your child says or does something hurtful, kindly explain why it was hurtful then encourage the child to make amends.
· Encourage your child to notice other’s feelings, and how comfort is offered. For example, sometimes my two-year-old see’s another child crying. She’ll say “He sad. He want mommy.” I’ll say, “Yes, he is sad; he fell down and scraped his knee. Now his mommy is giving him a hug.”
· As a child grows and becomes more capable start to include him in volunteer opportunities.
On occasion, as a therapist, I’ll work with a child struggling with appropriate social skills due to a lack of “other-awareness” (empathy). A favorite activity is to take that child to a playground where we observe together the other children playing. I ask the child to identify what he (or she) thinks all the other kids are feeling. Then, for homework, he does this same activity AT HOME! Over the course of our time together I get to witness his mind and heart opening up to how others exist in the world. As that happens his whole world gets bigger too. He starts to get along better with his classmates, friends, and siblings. He feels less stressed, lonely, sad, and angry. He feels happier, more connected, and supported. You get what you give, and that is why empathy matters.