7 Tips for Teaching Empathy in Toddlers

7 Tips for Teaching Empathy in Toddlers

Great advice to help your little ones tap into their sensitive sides.

By: Leah Maxwell

Toddlers are famous for being self-centered little narcissists. They’re full of sass and “no!” and “mine! mine! mine!” and even those of us who have been through this stage before and lived to tell the tale sometimes wonder if this kid will ever make it through terrible toddlerhood and become a loving, caring human being. I mean, is it so wrong to wish my toddler thought about my feelings before he decided to sit on my head when I dozed off during yet another rousing round of teddy bear tea party?

Toddlers think they’re the center of the universe, and although we can’t blame them -- it’s totally normal and probably evolutionarily sound -- it’s still natural to want them to show a gentler, kinder version of themselves every once in a while. Even if your little ones are veritable hug machines, they probably still need some help in the empathy department now and then. But how do you get a toddler to think about someone other than himself?

Here are seven tips for teaching empathy.

1. Acknowledge that they’re capable of it. It’s easy to excuse bad behavior by telling ourselves a kid is too young to understand how to act better. When you do that, you’re letting both the child and yourself off the hook in the short term (a.k.a. “taking the easy way out”), and you’re also missing an opportunity to teach your child a different way to behave in general. “Empathy is one of the stepping stones to moral maturity and it begins as early as toddlerhood,” says Emily Touchstone, PhD, an expert on child development at the University of Texas at Dallas. ”Even though young children are highly focused on their own interests, they learn that other people have intentions, ideas, and feelings that are different from their own. [Learning to show empathy] is an important part of development and helps children connect to the world socially.” When it comes to acknowledging another person’s feelings, some kids might need to be taught and encouraged more than others, but all kids can learn. Set age-appropriate expectations and then follow through with consistency.

2. Talk about emotions. Make a point to acknowledge and name emotions of all kinds, and in all different contexts. Help your child recognize the full range of feelings, not just in herself but in peers, siblings, parents, and caregivers, and even characters in books and on TV. Read stories about emotions, but also show your child real-life examples of what it looks like (facial expressions, body language, words) when people are happy, sad, scared, angry, nervous, etc. “Allow children to be expressive with their emotions and try to identify their feelings using words that are easy to understand,” advises Touchstone. You can’t expect a toddler to respond appropriately to emotions if she doesn’t know what to look for, so get in the habit of helping her both notice and identify emotions as they happen.  

3. Actively encourage empathy. Toddlers might not be great at feeling empathy yet, but teaching them how to act in empathic ways can help them get there. If a friend or family member is sad, ask your toddler if he wants to give that person a hug. See if you can get your toddler to share a toy another kid wants to play with. As always, talk about what you’re doing so your child connects the emotions with the behavior (like, “See Ben crying? It looks like he might be sad. Do you think he might like a hug?”).

4. Shift the focus to others. Tap into that signature “I’ll do it myself” toddler urge and put your little one in charge of caring for another’s needs. Most toddlers are hard at work asserting their own independence and trying to accomplish “big kid” things, so why not use that to your advantage to teach empathy at the same time? Kids as young as 2 can help feed, brush, or walk the family pet, and dolls with accessories like diapers and bottles can help a toddler shift the focus away from himself and onto others who need his help. Make caring an empowering experience and your child will learn that he can make a difference just by being kind.

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5. Act it out. Imaginative play creates a safe place to work out real-life situations, including acting and reacting to the full range of human emotions, says Kendal M. Tucker, MS, a licensed professional counselor. “The key to successfully teaching a child empathy is to model it through play and throughout daily activities,” she says. That includes using stuffed animals, figurines, dress-up, puppets, paper dolls, or even toys like cars and trains to pretend different feelings and ways to respond to them. Tucker gives the example of saying to the child, “The train is sad because he fell off the track -- let’s help him feel better by putting him back on the track.” Talking to children on their own level and using familiar objects will help the message hit home.


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6. Reward instead of punish. Positive reinforcement is the way to go when teaching empathy. Regularly acknowledge and reward empathic behavior with words of encouragement so your toddler will associate doing good with feeling good. “Rewarding empathetic behavior instills a sense of confidence and acceptance in the child as well as an awareness of how others feel,” says Tucker. If, on the other hand, you catch your child being insensitive to others, resist reacting in a way that will make your child feel bad and instead make helpful suggestions about better ways to behave. Empathy is hard for little kids (and big kids, and some adults), so keep your expectations age-appropriate and your attitude positive.

7. Empathize with your child. Modeling desired behaviors is an important tool in all aspects of parenting, and it’s especially powerful when teaching empathy. Validate your toddler’s feelings, help her work through difficult feelings, and be generous with your affection, teaching both that it’s OK to feel a range of moods and that there’s nothing like a helping hand or a listening ear to make it all better.

How do you teach your toddler empathy?

Leah Maxwell is a book editor, freelance writer, cereal addict, wife, and mom to two young boys. She has been blogging at A Girl and a Boy since 2003.

Image ©iStock.com/onebluelight

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