Empathy is the ability to imagine how another person is feeling in a particular situation and respond with care for that person’s feelings. How does your baby become a caring person who has good relationships with other people? Throughout life, empathy is a key factor in connecting to other people and feeling less alone. It is also a cornerstone of developing strong self-esteem and good mental health. Here’s how empathy develops in the first five years, and ways to encourage it in your child:
Ages 0–12 Months: Empathy is rooted in connecting with others, which happens through bonding. From birth, bonding teaches babies how to trust and feel secure with other people. When an infant has strong, secure attachments to parents and caregivers, and observes caring behaviors, it lays the groundwork for empathy later in life. In the first three months, babies begin to recognize caregivers, responding to voice and touch with smiles. Consistent, active engagement with an infant — from talking, reading and singing to responding to his or her needs quickly — lets a child know he or she is important.
Comforting a baby in the first year teaches caring behavior your baby will imitate as time goes by. Though infants are too young to express empathy for others, the first year is crucial for learning about caring behavior through modeling by caregivers. Your expression, tone and responsiveness to other people teaches your baby about feelings. From the start, acknowledging your baby’s feelings, offering praise, and responding to him or her builds a positive sense of self and the belief that other people are trustworthy.
Ages 1–3 years: Toddlers are sensitive to others’ feelings, which helps them gain deeper awareness of themselves and other people. When a toddler mimics another’s emotional state — such as bursting into tears when another child falls down — it is a sign of developing empathy. Between ages 1 and 3, children become more aware of their own feelings and those of other people, moving from playing side by side to beginning to anticipate in groups and engaging with each other. Though young children may sometimes have a hard time with managing emotions and may be aggressive, fearful or moody, they also can express caring and comfort others. To help toddlers develop empathy, identify feelings and compliment your child on thoughtfulness. For example, “When Maria was sad, it was so nice that you offered her a toy to help her feel better.” Encourage noticing others’ feelings and empathy in pretend play: “The teddy bear is hungry. Can you give her a pretend snack? You are taking very good care of her!”
Ages 3–5 years: During preschool, a child’s ability to empathize with others grows. Listening skills, responding to others’ feelings, understanding of different feelings, and friendships develop. Preschoolers’ moral awareness about fairness also becomes greater, and they are better able to imagine what it might be like to be another person. While they know everyone has emotions, preschoolers are still developing in terms of how they react to others’ pain or difficulties, such as with inappropriate, nervous laughter when someone hurts themselves. Gently reminding children of how it might feel and what they can say to help will teach a more empathic response.
To help your preschooler develop empathy, ask open-ended questions to encourage him or her to come up with ways to show kindness. For example, “How can we help Sarah feel better about her toy breaking?” Most important, be a role model for empathy, showing your child ways to be kind, from caring gestures such as a hug, to listening calmly, to letting a child know that you care when she or he feels upset.
Listening is powerful. When a child feels accepted and understood, he or she learns how to accept and understand others. Be “present” for your child, without the distraction of screens (such as televisions, computers and cell phones) or other people. Eye contact, crouching or bending down while listening to him or her helps. Showing you accept and understand him or her can often simply come through hearing how she or he feels and validating those feelings without judgment.
Don’t Force “I’m sorry.” When a child is forced to say he or she is “sorry” without understanding why or how it relates to another’s feelings, it doesn’t teach empathic behavior. In fact, empty apologies may teach that feelings don’t matter. Instead, encourage engaging: “How do you think that child is feeling, and how could you help?”