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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 2-year-old 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
Two-year-olds learn to better understand themselves through their interactions with you and other caregivers. They are just beginning to learn their strengths and limitations and about their own feelings. Parents and those in a parenting role share in this learning and exploration. This is an ideal time to begin to teach about empathy. The steps below include specific, practical strategies to prepare you.
Your child’s secure and trusting connection with you is pivotal to their emerging empathy for others. You can support their 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;
- greater ability to develop friendships and play with other children cooperatively; 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.
Five Steps for Growing Empathy
This five-step process helps you and your child 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.
Intentional communication and actively building a healthy parent relationship will support these steps.
Step 1. Get Your Child Thinking by Getting Their Input
Two-year-olds are highly active, exploring their environment and everything in it. They are adding new words to their vocabulary regularly but do not yet know how to name their big feelings. Frustrations with not being understood may result in them losing control more frequently. Despite your child’s new 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 will create empathetic interactions that promote empathy in you and your child. In becoming sensitive to 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 deepening 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.
- Each time there is an opportunity, share how you are feeling and ask your child how they feel: “I am getting hungry; are you feeling hungry?” Two-year-olds do not yet have a feelings vocabulary and are not able to describe their body sensations when they are upset or dealing with any big feeling. They will need your support to be successful.
- For example, if your child is making a disagreeable facial expression, notice and name the feeling. “I noticed that when I told you to share your toy with your friend, your eyebrows squished down and there was a line in your forehead. Were you feeling mad?”
- Practicing naming feelings will enable your child to identify their own feelings as well as others and seek support when they need it. This can help reduce the length and strength of tantrums as your child gains skills in understanding their feelings.
- When reading books, point out feelings. Talk about what you notice. “I noticed the duck in this story felt sad when he couldn’t have another cookie” or “When the little bear shared his toy with his friend, he looked happy. He had a smile on his face.”
Step 2. Teach New Skills by Interactive Modeling
Two-year-olds are in the very early stages of learning how to play with others and develop friendships. Your ability to guide them in becoming sensitive to others’ thoughts and feelings will give them the skills and confidence to forge new friendships and play cooperatively with others. Learning about developmental milestones can help you better understand what your child is going through. Here are some examples:2
- Two-year-olds are starting to see themselves as their own unique, individual person. They develop the understanding that they can have their own thoughts and feelings and someone else could have different thoughts and feelings. This is key for beginning to empathize with a thought or feeling that is different from their own such as, “Why is my friend sad because I got to eat all of the cookies?”
- Two-year-olds are eager to engage in imaginative play and, at times, cooperative play with other children. Children gain vital practice with all of their developmental milestones through play.
- Two-year-olds can show defiant behavior and test boundaries as they learn about the rules and attempt to understand your values.
- Two-year-olds can recognize common feelings like happiness, sadness, and anger.
- Two-year-olds may begin to experience separation anxiety when you leave them.
- Two-year-olds can imagine what response might be appropriate or comforting in a particular situation.
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. When they are expressing a feeling on their face or through their body, name it. “I noticed you are smiling. You look happy.”
- 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 and “pretend play” together.
- Use reading time and select a book of faces to help your child learn to identify the different feelings of other children. Point out how you can tell what each child is feeling and practice recreating those cues with your child.
- After reading a story together, act out the plot and use feeling words and expressions to match how the characters were feeling throughout the story. This expands their feelings vocabulary and teaches them how to recognize a wide range of perspectives and feelings that they might not encounter in day-to-day interactions with others.
- 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 frustrated right now because I cannot get the seat belt to work. Can you tell? My face is red and getting hot.”
- 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.”
- Each time there is an opportunity, share with your child how others may be feeling. For example, if your child is with others who are expressing feelings, help your child notice cues from other children’s faces and body language. For example, “Her face is frowning. Do you think she’s feeling sad?”
Don’t tell your child what they feel; ask instead. Two-year-olds are striving for independence and may create a power struggle if you are too direct about their thoughts and feelings. You might say, “You look angry. Is that right?”
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 others. Practice grows vital new brain connections that strengthen and eventually form habits.
- Whenever you see another child become emotional, use it as an opportunity to figure out the feeling together. “What do you think he’s feeling now? Why do you think that?” Offer support to help them be successful. “I think he might be sad because he fell down. What do you think?”
- Read together. When you read stories together, you engage in an activity that can be deeply connecting for both of you. Reflect on the story, and you’ll take the learning opportunity one step further. “Do you think Little Red Riding Hood was excited to go to Grandma’s House?” Involve your child in selecting the book, holding it, and turning the pages to build ownership and interest in reading.
- Play games to practice feelings. Playing games like Going on a Bear Hunt allows you and your child to try on different feelings and practice facial expressions, tone of voice, and movements that might match those feelings. For example, when you are running from the bear, you feel scared, so you are moving fast. You might have your eyes widened, and you might even be screaming. Learning those feelings when you are having fun allows for your full attention, rather than being distracted by your own heightened feelings.
- Initially, practice may require more teaching. However, avoid taking over and telling your child what others are thinking and feeling without allowing them the practice of guessing.
Resist judging other children who hurt your child either with words or actions. Most often, we don’t know the whole story of the child who is lashing out, but we do know one thing for certain: that child is hurting. So, express that you don’t see the whole picture. “Children only say hurtful words when they are hurt themselves. Do you know why she would be hurting?” Prompt compassionate thinking. Then, coach your child how to respond in ways that do no harm to self or another: “Next time, could you move away or ask her to stop?”
Step 4. Support Your Child’s Development and Success
At this point, you have been developing your child’s skills in empathy, teaching them to identify the thoughts and feelings of others at a beginner level, and allowing them to practice. Now, you can offer support when it’s needed by reteaching, monitoring, and coaching. Parents and those in a parenting role 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 helps them to grow their relationships and cooperate with others.
- Initially, your child may need active support. Use “Show me…” statements and ask them to demonstrate how they can work hard toward a goal. When children learn a new skill, they are eager to show it off! “Show me how you can help your sister when she is feeling sad.”
- Recognize effort by using “I notice” statements like: “I noticed how you saw she was sad and gave her a toy to help her feel better. That was kind of you.”
- When you can see your child is frustrated or feeling incapable, proactively remind your child of their strength. In a gentle, non-public way, you can whisper in your child’s ear, “Remember how you enjoyed playing at the park with your new friend yesterday. You might enjoy doing it again today. I will stand beside you.”
- Actively reflect on how your child is feeling when approaching challenges. “It seems like you got mad about having to take turns sharing the toy. You just stopped playing. Is that right? Did it help you feel better?” Be sure to reflect on the outcomes of their choices.
Don’t fix problems between your child and another. You could be taking away valuable learning for your child. Instead ask them good questions about how they can get their own needs met (“Could you hug a teddy bear and then go back to playing?”) and how they can understand and support each other’s feelings and start to feel better.
Step 5. Recognize Effort and Quality to Foster Motivation
No matter how old your child is, your praise and encouragement are their sweetest reward.
If your child is working to grow their skills – even in small ways – it will be worth your while to recognize it. Your recognition can go a long way to promoting positive behaviors and expanding your child’s empathy. Your recognition also promotes safe, secure, and nurturing relationships — a foundation for strong communication and a healthy relationship with you as they grow.
You can recognize your child’s efforts with praise, high fives, and hugs. Praise is most effective when you name the specific behavior of which you want to see more. For example,“You gave your sister a hug when she was feeling sad. That’s great!”
Avoid bribes. A bribe is a promise for a behavior, while praise is special attention after the behavior. While bribes may work in the short term, praise grows lasting motivation for good behavior and effort. For example, instead of saying, “If you give your toy to your friend, I will give you a sticker” (which is a bribe), try recognizing the behavior after. “I see you offered to share your toy with your friend. Love seeing that!”
- Recognize when your child’s guess about another child’s thoughts or feelings are confirmed. “We guessed your friend Sam was tired because he was quiet and looking away. He just laid down on the mat. You were correct.”
- Recognize small steps along the way. Each little discovery about another person’s thoughts and feelings is an exciting step forward. Remember that your recognition can work as a tool to promote more positive behaviors. Find small ways your child is making an effort and let them know you see them.
- Build celebrations into your routine. For example, if your child talks to a new child at the park, offer a way to connect again: “Lets talk with Julie’s mom to see if we can meet at the park again soon.” If your child finds a way to feel better, recognize their effort. Include hugs, high fives, and fist bumps in your ways to appreciate one another.
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.