Empathy is when you put yourself in the place of others and can feel for what they’re going through. It’s a complex emotion, so it takes years to learn. However, some children may start to understand more about others’ thoughts and feelings between 18 months and 24 months. After this age, you can gradually teach your child to be more aware of others’ feelings in everyday life. However, don’t expect too much from her at first. It’ll be a slow and gradual journey for your child to understand that other people have feelings, and that their feelings count.
Encourage your child to put herself in others’ shoes. For example, if she hits her sister, you could ask, “How do you think Ella felt when you did that? How would you feel if she hit you?” Don’t expect her to stay focused for a long lecture, but just suggest nicer ways for her to vent her frustration. Above all, don’t hit her back to try to teach her a lesson. This will not help her to learn about others’ feelings. Instead, it’ll give her the idea that it was acceptable to hit in the first place, as well as shocking and upsetting her.
Being open about your feelings will help your child to understand that other people can feel happy or sad, just like she does sometimes. Chat about what you’re feeling as you go about your day, for example: “Mummy’s annoyed because the car won’t start”, or “It makes me very happy when you put your ball away when I ask”. If she kisses your hurt finger, let her know that she’s being kind, and that it makes you feel better and cared for.
When your child expresses her feelings, give her your full attention, and use your own words to describe them. This lets her know you’ve understood. When she shouts, “Hooray!”, you could respond with, “Oh, you’re feeling happy!” This will help your child to start to name her own feelings. If she’s behaving angrily, ask whether she’s feeling cross.
Don’t be afraid to point out calmly when she’s being uncaring, but let her know that it isn’t wrong to feel angry or upset. Try saying, “I understand that you’re upset because your sister stole your toy, but it made her really sad when you hit her. What could we do instead to show her that you’re unhappy?” When your child has been kind, tell her what she did right, and be as specific as possible: “You were very generous to share your teddy bear with your baby brother. That made him happy. Can you see how he’s smiling?” If your child knows exactly what she did right, she may be more likely to do it again.
Help your child to notice when someone else has behaved kindly. Try saying, “Remember that lady at the greengrocers who helped us pick up our food when I dropped the bag? She was really nice to us, and she made me feel better when I was upset.” This helps your child to understand how people’s actions affect others.
Books can also provide good examples, so pick a favourite story to talk about, and ask your child how she thinks the characters feel. Talk about how you’d feel if you were them, and ask how she’d react. This helps her to understand that other people’s feelings are just as real as her own. It’s natural for young children to talk in a way that may sound abrupt, or even rude. It takes many years to learn all the social rules of what is and isn’t acceptable, so don’t expect your child to have perfect manners.
However, you can encourage her to show respect for others by talking in a calm, polite way. As soon as your child can talk, she can begin to say “please” and “thank you”. Explain that you feel more like helping her when she’s polite to you, and that you don’t like it when she orders you around. Set a good example by being polite to her, too. Say “please” and “thank you” regularly to her and to others, and she’ll learn that these phrases are part of normal communication, both at home and out in public.
Your child’s behaviour may frustrate and upset you at times, but try not to show your anger. This may give her the impression that it’s all right to act aggressivelyto others if they are behaving in a way that she doesn’t like. Take a moment to calm down. Then say firmly, “I know you were angry, but you shouldn’t hit your brother. That hurt him, and it made me sad. Please tell him you’re sorry.” Does your child love helping you to pull the laundry out of the washing machine? If so, build on her enthusiasm. Give her some responsibility for simple tasks around the house. This can help her to develop empathy by helping others.
Praise your child when she does her tasks well, and point out the effects of her actions: “Look how Rover’s wagging his tail! You’re being so nice to him. He’s really happy you’re giving him his dinner.” Let your child see you being kind and compassionate, and get her involved, too. Let her help you pack a bag of clothes to take to the local charity shop, and tell her that it helps other people if you pass stuff along when you’re done with it. If you’re taking a meal to a sick neighbour or a friend with a new baby, or visiting a food bank with a donation, tell your child what you’re doing and why. Explain that sometimes people are sick or don’t have enough food or clothing, and need a little help.
It’s perfectly normal if your child is completely self-centred at times. Her brain is still developing, and isn’t mature enough yet to fully realise the impact that her words and actions have on others. If you’re worried that your child never shows empathy, or doesn’t seem to be aware that other people have feelings that are different from hers, you may want to talk to your doctor for some reassurance and advice. Your child will most likely become more aware of other people’s feelings naturally, as she becomes more mature, but it never hurts to get a second opinion.