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5 Tips for Raising an Empathetic Child — Starting in Preschool

Anyone who’s raised a child knows that babies and toddlers aren’t yet capable of understanding empathy, but children who are just a little bit older can surprise you with their capacity for learning caring behavior.

“The earlier you start teaching your child about empathy, and the more you consistently model caring behavior, the better the chances are that your child will learn to treat others with empathy,” says Renelle Nelson, a children’s mental health coordinator at PACER Center. “An empathetic child will accept and include others, such as children who have a disability or other difference.”

According to Nelson, there are five ways you can help your preschooler learn empathy:

Recognize and address your child’s needs.

A child’s needs and wants aren’t always convenient. If adult schedules interfere with nap time, it’s tempting to tell your child, “You can wait a few minutes.” But a “few minutes” can seem like an eternity to a sleepy 4-year-old. Validate your child’s feelings by saying instead, “I know you’re tired, and we’ll get home as soon as we can and then you can go right to sleep.”

Focus on feelings.

Read books about feelings, and encourage your child to identify their own emotions, as well as those of others. When you notice a child who is happy or sad, remark on it.

Zoe, the mother of 5-year-old Sofia, said to her daughter recently, “Your brother was very quiet tonight. Do you think he might be sad because Daddy’s out of town?” Another time Zoe said to Sofia, “Your friend Michael was jumping up and down when you got to school! Didn’t he look happy to see you?”

Teach verbal and non-verbal cues.

Practice the same sentence using different tones of voice (happy, sad, angry, scared), and ask your child to identify how you’re feeling. For non-verbal cues, practice both facial expressions and body language, such as covering your ears when something’s too loud or exaggerated shivering to display being cold.

Use pretend play.

Use playtime and stuffed toys or dolls to emphasize empathetic behavior. “Oh, no! Poor Gerry the Giraffe fell down and has a sore,” you might say. “Oh, his friend Henry the Hippo is going to help him get up! Henry is a caring friend.”

Encourage inclusion.

Encourage your child to make friends with the child who’s being excluded. One afternoon at the park, Zoe noticed a child with a brace on his leg playing alone in the sandbox while other children ran and slid down the slides.

“That little boy doesn’t have anyone to play with,” Zoe told Sofia. “I bet he’d like to be your friend.” Though Sofia resisted at first, Zoe suggested that she go with Sofia to meet the boy. Before long, the two children were playing together.

Modeling behavior and encouraging your child are important steps in teaching empathy. Praise your child when he exhibits caring behavior; when things don’t go as well as you’d like, talk about what could be done differently. Don’t be afraid to use yourself as an example: “I was kind of crabby when Daddy told me he had to work late, because I really wanted to spend time with him. I felt bad, so I called him to apologize.” Let your child know that even adults aren’t always perfectly empathetic, but that we can always improve.

For more information, visit PACER’s Early Childhood Project.