Young children have a lot of BIG feelings, and it is our job to help them learn how to take all of those big feelings and turn them into positive social interactions. On top of teaching them how to act on their own feelings, we also want to make sure that they are also learning how to empathize with others when they are struggling.
Little ones have a hard time with empathy because of one simple reason: They don’t understand theory of mind.
Theory of mind is the concept that other people have thoughts and feelings that differ from our own. And young children struggle big-time with this. The idea that someone else might not be thinking the same thing or feeling the same way is a totally foreign concept to them!
Children from birth to 5 years old are quite egocentric, and need they explicit teaching to learn how to consider the thoughts and feelings of others. So how do we boost our children’s ability to see the perspective of others?
Here are 8 simple steps to help your child develop theory of mind and become more empathetic!
1. Be empathetic towards your child and others
Every time you dismiss your child’s feelings, they learn to dismiss the feelings of others.
Whenever you minimize their feelings, they also become more insecure and less likely to be able to handle difficult situations on their own.
Demonstrate to your child how people ought to be treated. Make a point to talk about their emotions in the moment, so that they start to recognize how it feels to be sad, angry, or jealous. Always be willing to see things from your child’s perspective.
Model a sincere apology when you are in the wrong. Radiate empathy, even if you aren’t in the wrong, to teach your child that it’s more important to maintain relationships than it is to be “right.”
2. Talk about emotions OUTSIDE of conflict resolution
Don’t wait until your child is in the middle a heated moment to talk to them about feelings!
It’s hard for young children to understand and make connections about other people’s emotions while they are in the midst of their own big feelings. That’s why it’s so important to talk about feelings and emotions outside of conflict resolution, in moments when they are calm and connected with you. These are the moments when they are really going to be able to process the information.
Young children relate best to stories, so while you are reading books to your child , talk to them about how the characters might feeling. Point out the facial expressions of the people in the book. Ask questions like, “How do you think they are feeling?” and “Why might they be feeling that way?”
If your child is interested, you can follow up by having them think about a time when they might have felt the same way as the character in the story. All of these experiences help your child develop a deeper sense of empathy for others and are so beneficial for your child’s emotional intelligence in general.
3. Talk about other children’s feelings IN conflict resolution
Let’s say your child is playing and they take another child’s toy away. Instead of “managing” the situation or solving the problem yourself, engage in a dialogue with both children.
Prompt your child to look at the other child’s face and ask them, “When you took his toy away, how do you think that made him feel?” If your child is struggling with this, you can simply say “I think he’s feeling sad. Let’s ask him.” Give the other child the opportunity to share about their feelings and what might make them feel better.
Whenever possible, give the children the opportunity to communicate and solve the problem themselves.
4. Don’t make them “Say Sorry”
So often we confuse the child’s ability to say sorry with the child’s ability to be empathetic when in reality, these are two very different things. Teaching your child to say sorry doesn’t mean that they actually feel sorry.
True empathy means that your child not only feels sorry for something that they have done to hurt someone else, but also that they take action to make things better for the other person.
Let’s say your child has broken another child’s block tower. Saying sorry doesn’t fix the other child’s tower. It’s much more effective to teach your child that their actions have real consequences by teaching them to take action (helping the other child re-build their structure) instead of simply saying sorry.
Acknowledge how knocking down the tower make the other child feel, and and that they need to help fix the problem they have created for the other person. Always point out how their efforts to help have helped the other child feel better!
With this said, it’s always good for you to MODEL saying sorry in a sincere way. Your child will hear you and take notice on when it is socially appropriate to say sorry and will also pick up on your sincerity.
5. Teach them about sincerity
Speaking of sincerity, did you know that you actually can teach your child to be more sincere? Around 3 years old, your child is already able to start understanding tone and inflection in your voice.
That’s why their “attitude” starts coming out right around then, am I right!? Three year olds know that the way you say something matters, and they are beginning to use that tactic against us.
Do some explicit teaching with your child about what it means to be “sincere.” Ask them if they want to be the “detective” to find out if you are being kind and sincere. Then do some role playing with them where you “act out” apologizing in both a very sincere and a drastically not sincere way. Ask them to guess which reaction is sincere, and ask how a person might feel if they are given a not sincere apology.
6. Help them anticipate the needs of others
Another really important way to foster empathy in your child is to teach them to think about (and anticipate) the needs of others. If grandma comes over, ask “Do you think Grandma might be thirsty?” and have your child offer her a drink.
Help your child to anticipate the needs of other children around them by offering them a toy, or asking if them if they want to play with them. Every time you point out the needs of others to your child, you encourage them to think outside of themselves and foster empathy within them.
7. Genuinely thank them for their kindness
When your child does something kind or unexpected, genuinely thank them. Let them know how much you appreciate their helpfulness. Pointing out your child’s natural kindness is the best thing you can do to support them in becoming more empathetic. Showing them how their generosity affects those around them encourages them to reduce conflicts and just be kind in the first place.
8. Remember that big changes only happen over time, with consistency
Children don’t become kind, obedient, generous, or altruistic in a day. Teaching empathy takes time! Give your child grace and remember that they are learning.
But if you stay on track and consistent with these 8 things, someday you will look back with pride at how far your child has come in learning how to be kind and empathetic to everyone they meet.