8 Tips for Teaching Empathy and Understanding to Toddlers

When parenting toddlers, it’s important to focus on their physical, mental, and emotional development. While all three aspects are equally important, the latter can be the hardest to address because it is so subjective. Teaching empathy and understanding to children is often challenging, especially because they see the world very differently from adults. Fortunately, there are many resources and tips that can help you discuss these topics with your little one.

You can use children’s books, your toddler’s toys, a pet, and animals you see in nature to help your child understand why the needs and emotions of others are so important. What’s more, you should model great behavior, so the child sees how adults treat each other with respect and compassion. When you use play and imagination to teach empathy, your child will love the lessons and absorb them quickly.

8 Tips for Teaching Empathy and Understanding when Parenting Toddlers

1. Model Good Behavior

Most childcare experts agree that actions speak louder than words. Your child won’t internalize any lessons about empathy and understanding that you teach them if you don’t model good behavior yourself. For this reason, you should pay special attention to what you say and do when your child is around. You’d be surprised by how well little ones interpret their parents’ words, actions, and ways of expressing themselves. 

Whenever you’re in a situation that requires empathy, use words and phrases that demonstrate your positive attitude towards other people. Your child will pick up and mimic your communication style later on. When the situation is over, you can speak to your child about what happened. Often, asking questions such as “How do you think the other person felt?” can be a very effective teaching tool, since they help your child to reflect on what happened.

2. Communicate with Your Child Using “I” Messages 

In grade or middle school, many of us are taught to communicate with others using “I” messages. Instead of saying “You hurt my feelings”, it’s better to say, “I feel hurt” since this is less confrontational and prevents the other person from becoming defensive. As a result, it’s easier to discuss and resolve the situation. You can start modeling this behavior when your child is very young. 
Whenever they hurt you or say something negative, you can tell them “I feel sad/ angry/ disappointed.” That way, your child can begin to make the connection between what they do and how this affects others. Together, you and your little one can explore the way actions and emotions are related. For instance, you can explain to them that others feel pain if you hit them, sad when you say something mean about them, and happy if you praise them. 

3. Use Play and Imagination 

The key to working with young children is to explain concepts to them in a way that they can understand. Toddlers are in what is sometimes called the “wonder phase”. Everything is magical, and the line between reality and fiction is blurred. That’s why speaking to them in terms of stories and imaginary characters can be extremely successful. If your child has a favorite doll or stuffed toy, this can be the perfect tool for teaching empathy. 
You can invent stories about this toy that involve various emotional situations. When discussing these events, you can speak to your child about the emotions the toy “feels”. Is it sad because someone else was mean? Proud because of an achievement? Upset because of failure? Over time, your little one will begin to understand that others around him or her also have emotions and that what the child does affects how others feel.

4. Use Children’s Books 

Lessons learned in day-to-day life can be supported with teaching tools like books. Such resources can make parenting toddlers more fun and less stressful. When you read a story to your child, you can focus on the emotions of the characters and allow your child to interpret what is happening. Ask plenty of questions that allow the little one to explore how the main characters are feeling and what happened to cause these emotions. 
To teach about the sanctity and miracle of life, The Story of You takes your child through the exciting journey they took in the womb. With the help of this beautifully illustrated story, you can instill positive values in your young child and help them see how important life in all its forms is. Through their own origin story, they can discover what it means to be kind and empathetic.

5. Expose Your Child to Various People

Most children meet a range of people throughout their early years: parents, grandparents, siblings, teachers, and other children at preschool. However, you can broaden your toddler’s horizons even more by consciously interacting with many others on a weekly basis. For example, you could meet up with families that have children of different ages or of the opposite gender. 
Spending time with others that are different can help your child learn to negotiate and empathize more easily. A great way to do this is to take your little one volunteering. In most neighborhoods, there are plenty of programs designed to help the elderly, disadvantaged children, or the homeless. By showing your child that helping others is important to you, you can model the behavior you’d like to see from them. 

6. Use Nature 

Almost all toddlers are excited about nature. The easiest way to make use of their love of animals is to provide them with a pet. A dog, cat, fish, rabbit, or hamster needs to be taken care of every day, and you can involve your child in this routine. While looking after your pet, you can speak to them about what the animal requires to be happy and healthy. A pet’s needs are very different from a human’s, so your child can learn that every living being is unique. 
If getting a pet isn’t practical for you, you can visit your local park, zoo, or nature reserve on a regular basis. There are plenty of animals to observe there, and you can help your child discover more about them. Questions like “Why do you think this squirrel is climbing a tree?” or “What are those ducks doing?” can help stimulate your child’s imagination and allow them to explore the behavior of animals around them.

7. Avoid Overusing Punishment and Reward 

When teaching empathy and understanding to young children, it’s tempting to use reward and punishment. You might give your child a treat or a new toy when they display the desired behavior or take away something they love if they are mean to others. However, this isn’t a great strategy because it externalizes the reward. You don’t want your child to behave well just because they are anticipating a reward from you. 
Instead of punishing or rewarding your toddler, use language that reinforces the behavior you would like to see. Whenever your little one displays empathy, you can tell them that you are proud of them and that you would have done the same in their situation. This way of parenting toddlers increases your child’s self-confidence and reinforces the positive behavior without externalizing the reward. 

8. Practice Conflict Resolution Skills 

Toddlers are often impulsive and irrational, but even at a young age, you can begin practicing conflict resolution skills with your child. When they feel angry or upset, don’t dismiss their emotions, even if you think they are overreacting. Nothing will teach your child to ignore the emotions of others faster than having their own ignored! Acknowledge what they are feeling and confirm that you understand them. Then, ask them how they could resolve the situation. 
Encourage them to stop and take a deep breath through the nose, then count to five and exhale through the mouth. Once they have calmed down, you can discuss the issue and find a suitable solution together. This improves your child’s communication skills and allows them to manage their negative feelings much more effectively. Whenever you see your young child getting upset, you can remind them of this technique and practice it with them.

Empathy for Life

Teaching empathy and understanding to children can be a challenge, especially when they are very young. However, laying the foundations early is important, and it can be achieved in a number of ways. For instance, you can use “I” messages and model great behavior whenever your child is around. When parenting toddlers, you should also expose your little one to various animals and people, so they learn how everyone is different. 

A great way to incorporate lessons about empathy into daily life is to buy a children’s book that teaches your little one about the sanctity of life. The Story of You is a useful tool to get the conversation started and explain to your child how they and those around them were created. Get in touch with Krystle Joy DeGraide now to purchase your copy or to find out more about how you can incorporate lessons about empathy into your parenting strategy.

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