At just 3 months old, babies can tell the difference between happy or sad faces, and by 15 months, many children try to hug, pat, or touch someone showing distress. At this age, children start responding to other people’s emotions.
You may start seeing more clear displays of empathy as your toddler grows. For example, instead of just noticing that his playmate is crying, he might stick out his lip and furrow his brow, showing concern. Or, you may see him smile and laugh when he sees that you are happy. The ability to understand and share what other people are feeling is called empathy.
Your child may not be able to understand every emotional situation perfectly, and he may not act with empathy every single time, but he is learning quickly. Encourage your child when you notice him responding to another person’s feelings. For instance, you see him starting at his friend Joey who is crying. He asks you, “Why is Joey crying?” You can say, “Joey is crying because he hurt his hand when he fell. Do you want to go ask Joey if he is okay?” It’s alright if he doesn’t want to ask. It’s most important that you talk about the feelings and emotions that he may not understand yet.
Children are great copycats. They will observe and copy the way you treat people. Try to be a good model for your child by being extra clear about how you feel and why you feel that way, especially when you might be angry, sad, or hurt.
For example, after a stressful day, you get home and the first thing you do is stub your toe. Ouch! You feel so frustrated with the day, you yell. Then slump to the ground to try and calm yourself down. Your child comes over to see what happened. You could say something like, “Mommy’s tired and just hurt her foot. Thank you for coming over to see how I feel.”
Providing clear explanations for your emotions and the feelings behind them will help your child understand empathy.
When you notice your child express empathy, let him know you appreciate the kind gestures by praising and encouraging the behavior.
Learning to Work Hard
As your toddler grows, it might seem like she is learning something new every single day. Some things may be easy and effortless for her, while some may be more challenging. You may see your child getting frustrated when she doesn’t quite understand something or can’t do something she wants to do.
Persistence can help a toddler overcome obstacles and learn new things. You can help by encouraging and praising your child’s persistence.
Here are some tips:
- Remember to praise the process rather than the person
Praise your child’s effort instead of the end result. For example, you can say “you worked very hard at finding the puzzle piece to fit” instead of “you’re such a smart girl”.
- Model persistence
Allow your child to observe you working hard at challenging tasks. Remember to talk out loud as your problem solve so that she can hear you.
- It’s all about effort
Persistence is not about an end result, but the process that it takes to get there!
Q & A
Q: My daughter was at the playground and saw her friend start to cry when she fell and scraped her knee. She did not express any desire to help or comfort her friend. Is that okay?
A: At this age, your child is still learning to understand emotions and how to behave in emotional situations. Even though you may have noticed your daughter expressing empathy before, she is still learning about feelings and how she should behave towards others. Remember to encourage empathy and praise her when she does show it, and to discuss and clearly explain the feelings behind certain situations if she doesn’t.