It can be hard to imagine that egocentric toddlers can, and will, turn into empathetic beings. Just as it is adaptive and developmentally appropriate for very young children to see themselves as the center of the world, as they mature, their perspective shifts and they are able to recognize that others have thoughts and feelings too.
The building blocks of empathy are apparent as early as infancy. Researchers have found that within the first few hours of life, infants will attempt to mimic the facial expressions of their mothers. This simple action reflects primitive wiring for social connectedness and sharing. As babies grow, they begin to understand that people’s actions are not just random and that behind people’s behaviors are reasons and motivations. Furthermore, not only do they recognize it, but many will assist others in achieving their goals. Researchers have observed children as young as 14-months-old attempt to help an adult retrieve an object just out of reach. In two-year-olds, early signs of empathy are shown as the toddler offers assistance by bringing things that are comforting to them, such as a favorite toy or blanky, to someone who they see is upset.
The hard wiring for empathy is present in most normally developing children, but it is not until later childhood that we see displays of empathic concern. Empathic concern is the feeling of compassion and concern for others. That feeling of empathy then often motivates a person to want to help another feel better. For instance, when a playmate’s knee hurts from a fall, your child may feel compassion for their pain and also desire to help them feel better.
As our children transition towards becoming empathic beings, there are many steps we can take to assist in their progress. The National Center for Infants, Toddlers, and Families recommends the following actions:
1. Empathize with your child. Validate your child’s experience and reactions.
For example, “Are you feeling scared of that dog? He is a nice dog but he is barking really loudly. That can be scary. I will hold you until he walks by.”
2. Talk about others’ feelings.
Identify feelings in others through conversation and play. For example, “Gray is feeling said because you took her toy care. Please give Gray back her car and then you choose another one to play with.”
3. Model empathy.
Encourage your child to assist you in your compassionate actions. For example, “Holden fell and hurt his elbow. Let’s get Holden some ice for his boo-boo.”
4. Read stories about feelings – Some suggestions include:
5. Be Patient.
Developing empathy takes time. Your child probably won’t be a perfectly empathetic being by age five (There are some teenagers and adults who have not yet mastered this skill perfectly, either). Remember that empathy is a complex skill that will deepen across your child’s lifespan.