31 - 33 Months

Yes, 2-year-olds are capable of empathy—here’s how to encourage the essential skill

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Young children are naturally egocentric. This is a normal part of development: children first see the world through their own eyes before they can see it through someone else’s. At around age two, children often believe that others think and feel the exact same way that they do.

As parents and caregivers we all want our children to eventually think beyond their own experience. We want them to be kind. A critical piece of that kindness is empathy, which is the ability to understand, share, and connect to the feelings of someone else.

HERE ARE SOME WAYS TO SUPPORT YOUR TWO-YEAR-OLD’S DEVELOPING EMPATHY:

Read books and talk about characters’ emotions

A 2016 study found that reading fiction can increase empathy: “fiction is the simulation of selves in interaction. People who read it improve their understanding of others.”

When we read books to our children, we give them access to experiences both familiar (a child falling down and getting hurt at a park, for example) and unfamiliar (anything they haven’t lived). Relatable experiences allow your child to connect with a character and feel the feelings alongside them, while new ones are a window into emotions your child may not have grappled with yet.

The Lovevery books explore a range of feelings with real-life characters and situations your child can relate to. While you read, you can ask questions about the characters and what they feel, and imitate them:

  • Max looks like he really got hurt there. What would you do if you were there at the park with him? How could we make him feel better?”
  • Bea is afraid of getting a shot from the doctor. Have you ever felt afraid of something? How does your face look when you’re scared?”
  • Graham is really excited that his friends are coming over to celebrate his birthday. Let’s talk about your birthday, it’s only 9 months away 😉. Are you feeling excited about it?” 
  • “Look, the girl in Now That I’m Three dropped her plate on the floor, and it was really surprising. Let’s make a surprised face together.”

Give your child opportunities to be independent 

Between 24 and 36 months, your child will likely understand that they are their own person, distinct from others. This is a big deal—children are born believing tha t they and their primary caregiver are one and the same person, and they spend the first few years of life “separating.” 

Understanding that they’re separate is an early stage in your child’s empathy development; as they become less dependent on others, they begin to build their own collection of experiences to draw upon when they empathize.

Here are a few ways to cultivate independence now:

  • If you haven’t before, consider asking permission before you give your child a hug. This respect towards their body shows them that you see them as their own person capable of making decisions.
  • Let them help you as much as possible. “Help” at this age is often slow, incomplete, and can be frustrating, but when your child is allowed to sweep the floor with a little dustpan and broom or mix ingredients in a bowl for dinner, they get to be part of the action in a way that feels empowering.
  • Have them start brushing their teeth, and you finish. Two-year-olds can’t brush their teeth on their own just yet, but when you include them, they get a chance to feel self-sufficient.

Reframe apologies

When our children cause harm to others, many of us are quick to orchestrate an apology, but this can also be an opportunity to tap into your child’s growing understanding of empathy. Zero to Three suggests the following:

“A more meaningful approach can be to help children focus on the other person’s feelings: ‘Chandra, look at Sierra—she’s very sad. She’s crying. She’s rubbing her arm where you pushed her. Let’s see if she is okay.’ This helps children make the connection between the action (shoving) and the reaction (a friend who is sad and crying).”

By 24 months, children generally begin trying to comfort people they see in distress. This is largely an imitative behavior, mimicking what they’ve seen others do, but it’s an important piece of developing empathy. Once they now have the capacity to comfort others, encouraging your child to do so (in place of a hollow “I’m sorry”) is much more meaningful when they need to make something right.

Validate your child’s emotions

A 2018 study about emotional regulation found that children develop empathy more deeply when they’re more connected to their own emotions, particularly negative ones. In other words, it’s much easier to be kind and empathetic to others when we understand our own feelings first. Here are a few things you can try:

  • Label your child’s intense feelings. Doing this may feel counterintuitive, but describing what you see when your child is having a hard time can help them come out of it stronger and with more tools for next time: “you didn’t want to leave the park, and I can see you’re really upset about that. I understand why, and I bet you’re really sad and angry to have to stop playing.” For more examples on how to do this, read this article about naming your toddler’s emotions.
  • Speak from the “I perspective.” When you speak through your own lens, it helps your child further understand that you have different experiences and emotions than they do: “It hurt when you hit me, and I can’t let you do that.” In turn, encourage them to speak that way; when they’re trying to express themselves, give them sentence starters like “I didn’t like it when” or “I’m sad because.”
  • Praise their positive actions. When your child goes out of their way to show kindness towards someone else, point it out: “I noticed that you gave Marco a hug when he was so sad. That was really nice and it showed that you care about him. I think it helped him feel better.”

Model empathy and honesty with your own emotions

As with so many aspects of parenting, modeling empathy ourselves is one of the best ways of teaching it. One way to do this is to narrate when you’re having strong feelings yourself. When you can’t find a parking spot, for example, tell your child “I’m sorry I’m not paying attention to you, I can’t find a place to park and it’s making me feel angry and frustrated. I’ll take some deep breaths and keep looking.”

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Posted in: 31 - 33 Months, Social Emotional, Empathy, Books, Child Development

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