More threads by David Baxter PhD

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
Learning Empathy
by Cathie Kryczka,

Early steps are vital to your child learning empathy. Here's how to nurture a big heart in little people.

Some days you just need a hug. Laurie-Ann Timlock of Brentwood Bay, BC, is seven months pregnant. Her husband, Geoff, is in the military, due to leave in a few days for a month-long stay on other side of the country. She says, “We have to get everything ready before he goes. I was in the kitchen — and it’s just overwhelming — there is so much to do and Christmas is coming and I just burst into tears. I don’t like to do that...”

But help was on the way. “All of a sudden Mackenzie came running in from the living room looking at me, and said, ‘Mom, Mom!’ I started to wipe my tears and he puckered up and gave me a kiss and a huge hug!” And did two-year-old Mackenzie’s cure for a sad mom work? You bet. “It did make me feel better because it made me laugh. Oh, thanks Buddy!”

In Orleans, Ont., Anita Paradis, mom of Thomas, two, Juliette, four, and Kristina and Anneka, six, sees a similar concern in her little son, and she’s equally moved. “Since he was 19 months old, if we were in a mall and we heard a child crying somewhere, Thomas would say, ‘Sad, crying.’ He had an awareness that startled me. He does that all the time — he notices when other people have booboos. When he drops a toy, he’ll say, ‘Oh, poor Teddie.’ I’m just astonished. And this is my fourth child!”

Children younger than three years aren’t really supposed to be capable of true empathy. It’s a complicated concept, requiring a child to understand the perspective of another person and to figure out not only what that person is feeling but what response is appropriate. To do that he needs to have a good grasp of his own emotions. He has to mature beyond the normal, healthy world-revolves-around-me perspective of those early years. To figure out the nuances of an empathetic response, he has to be able to hold several ideas in his head at once (a development that happens in the later preschool or early elementary years). We can’t expect very young children to regularly or consistently respond with empathy. But toddlers like Mackenzie and Thomas are learning, and have been since they were tiny babies. That early learning is vital. Here are some of the steps on the road to learning empathy.

Early Stirrings
Nancy Mullin-Rindler, director of the Preschool Empathy Project and the Project on Teasing and Bullying at the Wellesley Centers for Women in Massachusetts, explains we all come hardwired with the capacity to feel empathy. You can see the precursors of empathy even in babies: “We know that when we have a group of infants in a nursery, when one cries before long everybody’s crying. A lot of people initially thought this was just a response to a bad noise.” But, says Mullin-Rindler, it turns out that crying is triggered more by hearing a human cry than by any other kind of noise.

We see this kind of response to others’ emotions (which researchers call “emotional contagion”) in toddlers, too. When Katie, who is almost three, went to a movie with her dad, Dave Côté of Burlington, Ont., the laughter was definitely catching. “All the kids would laugh at the kid jokes, and when the adults laughed at the little jokes geared to the parents, the kids would start laughing right after — even though they wouldn’t have understood the joke.” And recently when Katie met another little girl in the doctor’s waiting room, the two children had a big laugh together. The joke? Who knows, says Katie’s mom, Heather. “The two of them were just howling over nothing at all. One would laugh and the other would laugh, and it just kept going.”

Sometimes a child’s gut-level reaction isn’t quite what we would hope. The distress a toddler feels witnessing another child’s upset can lead to behaviour that looks, to our eyes, distinctly unempathetic. Janet Strayer, professor emerita in the psychology department at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, BC, explains: “There are some kids who are very sensitive to the emotions of other people, but they don’t know what to do about it.” When one toddler is crying, her friend may become very distressed, but instead of offering help, she may run away or even throw sand at the first child. It’s not the kind of reaction we would hope to see. But she’s not being unfeeling; rather the feeling she has is so uncomfortable and her repertoire of appropriate ways to remedy the situation is so limited, that she can’t think much past trying to make it stop.

Experiencing Empathy
If we want our children to become empathetic, we have to show empathy towards them. Strayer says, “Kids can better understand and respond positively to other people’s emotions when they have their own emotional needs met. So taking care of a young baby’s or toddler’s emotions is the first thing.” When your baby is crying, you comfort him; when your toddler is frightened of the neighbour’s loud dog, you reassure her; if he’s laughing himself silly over his backwards hat, you join in.

To respond with empathy, it’s important that parents accept the unique emotional needs of their child. Some kids, right from the beginning, are more sensitive, perhaps more easily frightened or less adaptable to new situations. Your baby may need more soothing at bedtime than anyone else’s you know. A friend’s toddler may settle happily into a new daycare in a matter of hours, while your child is still feeling wary and weepy after a week (or more). Tailor your responses — there’s no other child just like yours.

Mullin-Rindler explains how the give and take of responsive parenting builds emotional literacy. “If a baby cries and no one comes, the infant never learns that there is a connection between the feeling and the response.” She needs to experience that her distress (a feeling) can be soothed when she is picked up and rocked by her parent (the action). That connection is an essential step in learning to empathize.

There’s one response to a child’s emotions that Strayer cautions against: It’s important not to shame a child about the way he feels. This can be damaging to the development of empathy, especially in a very sensitive child. Children’s feelings — and especially toddler feelings — don’t always make sense from an adult perspective. Your child’s fear, sadness or rage may seem groundless or even silly, but they are his true feelings all the same. A child who is subjected to shame about how he feels won’t get stronger — and he could react by lashing out at others in an attempt to stop the shame. So respect your child’s emotions, even when they are different from your own.

My Feelings, My Self
Before they begin to understand other peoples’ feelings, toddlers have to learn about their own. The aim is to help your toddler learn to understand emotions — the whole range of emotions — and to express them in appropriate ways. We can do this in simple ways, by talking about how she feels, distinguishing one emotion from another and gearing what we say to her level of understanding. We can read books with characters (even if they are bunnies and bears) who deal with different feelings and situations, and talk about those. Help your toddler understand that if she’s mad, she can make a big angry red painting or run around the yard really fast, but she can’t punch her sister or throw her cup to express that feeling.

Learning to read the body language of others takes some practice, but parents can help young children begin to do this. Again, it starts with your own child. Mullin-Rindler explains: “When you see your child looking upset, you can say, ‘Wow, you look really mad,’ or ‘You look a little sad today — what’s going on?’” This helps kids learn to respond to what they see.

Timlock has made an effort to ensure that emotions are an open subject. It’s a cherished value from her own upbringing, one that she felt strongly needed to be a part of her own family. “We were always taught to share how you feel. And now Geoff and I talk to each other about everything.” Mackenzie is included, too. “I want him to be able to come and tell us if he’s mad about something or if he’s sad — or anything. That’s really important.”

It seems incongruous that early learning about empathy happens at a time in children’s lives when they are notoriously self-centred. We’ve all seen a toddler so focused on his own joy or frustration that nothing else seems to exist. So how can he grasp how someone else feels? But this growing self-awareness is important to the development of empathy. At around age two, a child begins to understand that he is a separate person, with his own emotions. He starts to see that others are not necessarily feeling the same way he is. Strayer says, “To see and to understand someone else’s emotions, you have to have a self to bounce the emotions off.” Once a child begins to get a handle on how his emotions work, he can make the leap and begin to understand that other people also have feelings, whether they are similar to his own or quite different.

Beyond Me
When a toddler sees another child who is happy or sad, he makes a connection with his own experience of feeling that emotion. But as important as identifying an emotion as familiar, says Strayer, is understanding when someone else is feeling something different from you. “It’s important to start realizing that not everybody is happy at a birthday party, that some kids don’t have presents. So it’s important to note not only what’s similar but also what’s different about the child’s view of this and another child’s.”

As we nurture a child’s understanding of himself, Mullin-Rindler stresses that we want him to value others, too. “We want to value kids’ uniqueness, but I think we need to value our connections, so it’s not all about ‘me,’ it’s also about ‘we.’” She explains that as children grow, the connections that begin with mom and dad and family gradually extend to other people — friends at preschool and down the street. In the long term, that sense of “we” may expand to include the global community — these are the people who care about what happens to far-away people as well as those who are near and dear to them.

How do we help toddlers express their care for other people? Toddlers are just learning about getting along in that big world and they don’t always get it right. When your child hits a playgroup pal who’s having a bad day instead of offering a hand, what’s a parent to do? Take that moment to model a more acceptable way to respond to the distress of others, says Strayer. “We can say to our child, ‘Yes, you’re sad because Andy’s sad. Here, let’s go over and play with Andy or let’s share this toy with him or give him a nice pat.’ We’re showing him the things he can do to alleviate the distress of the other child, and his own, too.” Modelling that kind of empathetic behaviour gives your child the beginnings of a repertoire of appropriate responses.

We can also help connect the dots between feelings and actions. Even very young children can begin to learn that their actions can cause others to feel a certain way: We can gently move a baby’s hand away from our hair and say, “Ow, that hurts.” We can guide a toddler to pat a puppy and suggest, “Softly.” We can offer help to our child’s friend whose blocks have fallen over — especially when our child made the blocks fall. These kinds of responses “teach kids that their actions cause a reaction. They teach alternative behaviours — they model empathy,” explains Mullin-Rindler.

Getting It Right (Or Almost Right)
Learning to have empathy for others is a process that takes years, maybe a lifetime. Mullin-Rindler explains that it evolves along with our emotional development all through our lives. “But,” Mullin-Rindler stresses, “the building blocks have to be in place at an early age.”

She goes on to explain: “You hear the expression, ‘Walking a mile in someone else’s shoes.’ But that’s only part of it — not only do you understand what the other person is feeling, then there is your response. A truly empathic response is more in keeping with what the other person wants than with what you want.” That’s the final piece of the empathy picture: to gauge what would be meaningful to that other person.

This is something that many adults find difficult, so it’s not reasonable to expect it of young children. When a toddler offers her blanket to her exhausted dad, it’s probably not what he really wanted. But it’s what the child knows works for her.

The remarkable thing is that sometimes a toddler delves into her limited bag of responses and comes up with something — perhaps not quite what the person on the receiving end expects — but something that works a little magic anyway, as Heather Côté, of Burlington, Ont., discovered. Her daughter, Katie, will soon be three and her mom is heartened to see how her daughter responds to other people’s distress. When her baby brother cries, Katie offers him hugs and kisses or a soothing word (“It’s OK, little buddy!”), she pats his back or brings him toys. One day when Côté was upset, Katie brought her mom a toy, gave her a hug and asked if she was feeling better. The toy? A sandwich, made out of washcloths.

Strayer is touched at Katie’s gesture. “Sometimes even if we don’t know exactly the right thing to do, if it’s done with the right feeling, it affects someone the way we want them to be affected. The important thing is the intent of the message — even if it’s done with washcloths.”

Because, when you think about it, what could possibly cheer you up more than a pretend sandwich made out of washcloths, offered by your toddler? Really, it is just what you needed, after all!
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