Now Is the Right Time!
As a parent or someone in a parenting role, you play an essential role in your child’s success. There are intentional ways to grow a healthy parent-child relationship while growing empathy in your child so that they can work to develop healthy relationships and prepare for future success in school and life.
Empathy means the ability to take the perspective of and interpret the thoughts and feelings of others, including those from diverse backgrounds and cultures. Empathy directly relates to social awareness — the ability to understand social and ethical norms for behavior and to recognize family, school, and community resources and support. “Empathy can be instilled, and it is composed of teachable habits that can be developed, practiced, and lived.”1
One-year-olds build their social and emotional skills through loving interactions with you and your responses to their needs. A sense of security provides a foundation for your child to explore their world and to respond with care for others as they grow. The steps below include specific, practical strategies to prepare you.
Your child’s secure and trusting connection with you is pivotal for their healthy development. You can lay the foundation for growing empathy as you interact and share love and conversation.
Today, in the short term, building empathy can create
- greater opportunities for connection, cooperation, and enjoyment;
- feelings of safety and security; and
- a sense of wellbeing and motivation to engage.
Tomorrow, in the longer term, growing empathy in your child
- prepares them for preschool and kindergarten;
- develops the ability to share and take turns with adults and other children;
- builds skills in self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationships, and responsible decision making; and
- deepens family trust and intimacy.
This five-step process helps you and lays the foundation for your child to grow empathy. It also builds important critical life skills in your child. The same process can be used to address other parenting issues as well (learn more about the process).
These steps are best done when you and your child are not tired or in a rush.
Step 1. Getting to Know and Understand your Child’s Input
One-year-olds are starting to verbalize their needs by babbling, crying, and starting to use single words. Despite your child’s emerging ability to use words, continue to pay close attention to their facial expressions, movements, and sounds in order to work on understanding what they are trying to communicate. Your efforts to learn from your child build trust and create empathetic interactions that promote empathy. In becoming sensitive to the nuances of your child’s verbal and nonverbal expressions, you
- are responding to their needs;
- are growing their trust in you, sense of safety, and sense of healthy relationships;
- are growing motivation for you and your child to work together;
- are improving your ability to communicate with one another;
- are growing your own and their self-control (to calm down when upset and focus their attention); and
- are modeling empathy and problem-solving skills.
- Consider how your child reacts when they are upset, angry, or frustrated.
- How do they show you? Children at this age may cry, yell, hit, bite, or throw things. They can be soothed by cuddling and rocking and are learning to self-soothe when upset.
- If a child is crying, offer to hold them or provide comfort items like a favorite teddy bear or a blanket. Do not attempt to talk anything through when a child is highly upset. Focus on calming down first.
- If a child hits or bites in anger or frustration, stop and say, “Ouch. That hurts my arm, and it makes me feel sad” or “I see you are frustrated.”
- Consider how your child reacts when they are happy or excited. How do they show you? Children at this age clap their hands, imitate others, smile, squeal, and laugh when they are happy or excited.
- Consider how your child reacts when they are scared. How do they show you? Children at this age are more aware of their surroundings, which can make them afraid of new things or sounds. They may cry, withdraw, or hide.
- Each time your child expresses any big feeling, be sure and name the feeling: “You seem angry” or “You seem happy.” This builds their feelings vocabulary adding to their self-awareness and ability to manage their feelings.
As you react to your child in ways that soothe, you will find they will feel a greater sense of your understanding and responsiveness so that your interactions become more two-way instead of one-way.
Step 2. Teach New Skills by Interactive Modeling
One-year-olds are learning how to engage in healthy relationships through your loving interactions. Learning about developmental milestones can help you better understand what your child is going through. Here are some examples:2
- 12-18-month-olds will respond to their name and may use 5 to 10 words. They are starting to combine words with gestures and are starting to follow simple directions and remember recent events and actions. They may feel uneasy when separated from their loved ones.
- 12-18-month-olds are beginning to walk independently, can stack blocks, and point to objects of interest.
- 18-24-month-olds can understand 10 times more than they can speak, are starting to respond to questions, can point to familiar objects and people in pictures, and are starting to follow two-step directions. They are also starting to want to try things on their own.
- 18-24-month-olds are becoming able to throw and attempt to catch a ball without losing their balance, enjoy playing with new toys in varying ways, and usually participate in getting dressed without becoming upset.
Teaching is different than just telling. Teaching builds basic skills, grows problem-solving abilities, and sets your child up for success. Teaching also involves modeling and practicing the positive behaviors you want to see, promoting skills, and preventing problems.
- Model empathy while interacting with your child. Modeling empathy can be one of the greatest teaching tools.
- Share the focus. As you spend time with your child, follow their lead. As they pick up new toys or explore a different part of the room, notice and name what they are exploring.3
- Notice gestures and listen for thought and feeling. Attempt to figure out what your child is trying to tell you through their sounds, gestures, and facial expressions. When they are expressing a feeling on their face or through their body, name it. “I noticed your face is red and your shoulders are tense. You look angry.”
- Children require your attention to thrive. So, why not build a special time into your routine when you are fully present to listen to what your child has to tell you? Turn off your phone. Set a timer if needed. Then, notice your body language. Ask yourself, “What is my body communicating, and how am I demonstrating that I’m listening?”
- Read together. Use reading time and select a book of faces to help your child learn to identify the different emotions of other children. Point out how you can tell what each child is feeling and practice recreating those cues with your child.
- Make your thinking and feelings explicit. Talk about how you are feeling, why you are feeling it, and what signs you are giving particularly when it’s not a comfortable feeling. “I am feeling happy right now because I really like to dance with you to the music. Can you tell? I am smiling.”
- Talk aloud about the ways in which you respond to your own big feelings: “I’m gonna take a few deep breaths before trying again and see if that helps.”
- Develop empathetic thinking by talking about how others might be feeling.
- “Your friend is crying. I think she is feeling sad.”
- “Do you see the little boy over there? His face is frowning. Let’s go over and see if he needs our help.”
Step 3. Practice to Grow Skills, Empathy, and Develop Habits
Your daily routines can be opportunities for you and your child to practice new vital skills if you seize those chances. Practice provides important opportunities to grow empathy as they interact with you and begin to learn social cues. Practice grows vital new brain connections that strengthen and eventually form habits.
- Allow your child the chance to interact with new people of all ages with you close by.
- Create a consistent routine with regular nap times, play times, and meals. Routines create a sense of safety and security so that your child can focus on learning and growing.
- Narrate your day as you go about your household chores or run errands in your community. This narration will offer your child a sense of connection and offer practice in some of the building blocks of empathy such as listening to your thoughts and feelings.
Step 4. Support Your Child’s Development and Success
At this point, you are developing your child’s skills in empathy by modeling empathy in your actions and allowing them to practice. Now, you can offer support when it’s needed by reteaching, monitoring, and coaching. Parents naturally offer support as they see their child fumble with a situation in which they need help. This is no different.
By providing support, you are reinforcing their ability to think and feel with empathy, which will help them grow their relationships and cooperate with others.
- Learn about your child’s development. Each new age presents different challenges. Being informed about your child’s developmental milestones offers you empathy and patience.
- Recognize effort by using “I notice” statements like: “I noticed how you saw she was sad.”
- When you can see your child is scared of new people or situations, offer confidence in your child’s ability to face the unfamiliar. In a gentle, comforting voice, you can say, “This is my friend. He is very kind.”
- Actively reflect on how your child is feeling when approaching challenges. “You seem worried about going into this new store. I’ll hold you so you feel more confident.” Offering comfort when facing new situations can help your child gain a sense of security and face them rather than backing away.
- You can also offer comfort items to help your child face new challenges. “Would your bear help you feel better?”
Step 5. Recognize and Celebrate
There are so many amazing changes and developments to celebrate with your child. Each little achievement is something worth recognizing and celebrating.
Taking the time to recognize and celebrate can promote safe, secure, and nurturing relationships. It makes children feel secure and loved, which helps their brains develop. It builds a foundation for strong communication and a healthy relationship with you as they grow.
Though it is easy to overlook, your attention is your child’s sweetest reward. Your recognition can go a long way to promoting more positive behaviors and expanding your child’s self-esteem and confidence. You can recognize and celebrate your child with the following actions.
- Smile at your child.
- Make eye contact.
- Use caring facial expressions.
- Be physically gentle and caring with your child.
- Recognize steps along the way. Each little discovery about another person’s thoughts and feelings is an exciting step forward.
- Build celebrations into your everyday routines. Promote joy and happiness by laughing, singing, dancing, hugging, and snuggling to appreciate one another.
This year is filled with amazing changes — and not just for your child. Don’t forget to recognize and celebrate your own development and milestones as a parent.
Engaging in these five steps is an investment that builds your skills as an effective parent to use on many other issues and builds important skills that will last a lifetime for your child. Throughout this tool, there are opportunities for children to become more self-aware, to deepen their social awareness, and to work on their relationship skills.