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Now Is the Right Time!
As a parent or 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 3-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. It directly relates to their developing social awareness, a critical skill for relating to others, or the ability to understand social and ethical norms for behavior and to recognize family, school, and community resources and supports. “Empathy can be instilled, and it is composed of teachable habits that can be developed, practiced, and lived.”1
Three- and four-year-olds come to better understand themselves through their interactions with you and other caregivers. They are in the process of learning their strengths and limitations, why they feel the way they do, and how they relate to others. Parents and those in a parenting role share in this learning and exploration.
Three- and four-year-olds are also growing their ability to imagine how others may be feeling and to respond with care. Your child’s ability to show empathy is critical to getting along and playing with others collaboratively. This is a critical time to teach and practice 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;
- deepens engagement and motivation for reading, including feeling the emotions of the characters and connecting with them;
- 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 Building Empathy
This five-step process helps you and your child build empathy. It also builds important 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
Children, ages three to four, are highly active and exploratory, seeking moments for imaginative play. They now can view themselves as a whole person with a body, mind, and spirit but are still learning to identify their big feelings. Your child is gaining skill and ability in cooperating with others and working through conflict with pretend play. Your efforts to learn from your child will create empathetic interactions that promote empathy in both of you. In becoming sensitive to your child’s verbal and nonverbal expressions, you
- are responding to their needs;
- are growing their trust in you and their 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 growing empathy and problem-solving skills.
- Each time there is an opportunity, ask your child, “How do you feel? How do you think the other child feels?”
- For example, if your child is with others who are expressing emotion, 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?”
- When reading books, look at the images of children or animals and guess the feelings by asking, “What do you think that character is thinking?” and “What do you think that character is feeling?”
- If your child is feeling unsure about how others are feeling or is buried in their own feelings, ask questions to help them. You could say,
- “What do you notice the other child is feeling?”
- “How do you know from their facial expression?”
- “What does their voice sound like? How are they moving?”
- Practicing naming feelings will enable your child to identify their own feelings as well as others and seek support when they need it.
Step 2. Teach New Skills by Interactive Modeling
Three- and four-year-olds are 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 relationships and play cooperatively with others. Learning about developmental milestones can help you better understand what your child is working hard to learn. Here are some examples:2
- 3-4-year-olds are beginning to understand that their body, thoughts, and feelings are their own.
- 3-4-year-olds are growing in their imagination and allowing it to drive their play. They may take on an imaginary friend or fear imagined monsters or dangers.
- 3-4-year-olds are finding that they can create more interesting pretend play by cooperating and negotiating with other children.
- 3-4-year-olds are talking in five to six word sentences with the ability to tell stories and speak in ways others can understand.
- 3-4-year-olds develop a curiosity about bodies – their own and others.
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 your face is red and you are frowning. You look angry. Is that right?”
- 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, for example, and select a book of faces to help your child try identifying 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 will help to expand their feelings vocabulary and learn 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 even when it’s not a comfortable feeling. “I am feeling sad right now because I just dropped my special cup and it broke. Can you tell? My face is frowning.”
- 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. That will help me.”
- Develop empathetic thinking. For example, when your child points a blaming finger saying “He did it!” you may respond with:
- “What do you think he’s feeling?”
- “What choice would you make if you were feeling sad or hurt?”
- “What do you think could make him feel better?”
Don’t tell your child what they feel, ask instead. Three to four-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 sad. 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?”
- Read together. When you read stories together, you engage in an activity that can be deeply connecting for both of you. Be sure and involve your child in selecting the book they want to read. Involve your child in holding the book, turning pages, and predicting what will come next. Hold onto a page before turning it and ask, “What do you think will happen next?” Reflect on the story, and you’ll take the learning opportunity one step further. “Do you think the character was sad that he spilled his milk?”
- 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 the 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.
- Involve the whole family and create guessing games at dinner or when you are playing together. Have Daddy make an emotional face. Take turns guessing what Daddy is feeling. Remember that your child is actively trying to figure out other people’s feelings and reactions. Join in the excitement of making discoveries about other’s thoughts and feelings, and your child will continue to remain curious and learn even when you are not present.
- 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? Good. Let’s practice.”
Step 4. Support Your Child’s Development and Success
At this point, you have been developing your child’s skills in empathy, and you are 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 to grow their relationships and cooperate with others.
- Initially, your child may need active support to encourage empathy. Use “Show me…” statements and ask them to demonstrate empathy. You could say, “Show me how you can help your friend who is crying.”
- Recognize effort by using “I notice” statements like: “I noticed how you saw she was sad and gave her one of your toys to help her feel better. That was kind of you.”
- On days with extra challenges 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 gave your sister a hug to feel better the other day? How could you do the same for your brother who is having a hard day today?”
- Actively reflect on how your child is feeling when approaching challenges. You can ask questions like:
- “How are you feeling at playtime?” Offering a chance to talk gives insight into your child’s social challenges.
- “Seems like you got frustrated with your turn taking and 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 questions about how they can get their own needs met (“Could you hug a teddy bear and then go back to playing?”) and about how they can understand 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 you want to see more of. For example, “You shared your toys with your friend who was crying. Love seeing that!”
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 share your toy with your sister, I will let you have more time to play at the park” (which is a bribe), try recognizing the behavior after. “You were sharing your toys with your sister. I really appreciate that!”
- Recognize when the other child confirms your guess about their thoughts or feelings. “We guessed your friend Jane was tired because she was quiet and looking for her blanket. She 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 classmate, offer a playdate or a simple after school snack together. 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, to exercise their self-management skills, to work on their relationship skills, and to demonstrate and practice responsible decision making.