A Parent's Role
It's important to remember that while your child is learning to be empathetic, he's also learning to assert his independence and communicate what he wants. This developmental combination can result in empathetic behavior one moment and aggressive behavior the next. So while your 18-month-old may offer you a hug when he thinks you're sad, he may also smack his playmate to communicate that he wants her toy.
The good news is that you can use empathy to help curb aggressive behavior. By encouraging their children to be aware of other people's emotions, parents are not just warding off teeth marks. Empathetic children often grow up to be compassionate adults, the caretakers of a hurt world. Here are four ways to foster your child's sensitive side:
1. Show them the world. Being empathetic starts with being sensitive to what's going on in the world around us. Showing your kids how you interact with others nurtures a desire to explore relationships.
2. Encourage communication. A toddler's vocabulary and ability to comprehend a wide range of feelings are limited, so you need to verbalize emotions for her. For example, if your child's trip to the zoo is canceled, you could say, "I can tell you're disappointed. I also feel that way when my plans are canceled." You can also point out feelings in others. If you see a boy sitting alone at the park, you could say, "He looks lonely. I hope he makes a friend."
3. Role play. Creative role-playing with puppets or dolls is a wonderful way for children to investigate others' feelings. If you want to explore envy, for example, have one puppet receive a gift while another gets nothing. Then ask your child how the puppet without a present feels. Role-playing is also a good way to teach kids how to offer comfort to others.
4. Temper your expectations. Empathy is very much a work in progress for toddlers. Some children understand it without much effort; other kids need more practice. Don't forget that egocentrism is normal for a toddler. They can't be empathetic and unselfish all the time.
Sources: Alison Gopnik, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley and coauthor of The Scientist in the Crib (HarperPerennial); Sharon Ramey, PhD, coauthor of Right from Birth (Goddard Press)
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