Young children are developmentally egocentric. They are not just being selfish! They are wired to feel safe and have their own needs met. They have to learn and practice to be able to see the world from more than one perspective at a time. They struggle to see that another person might be having a different emotional experience to themselves. The shift towards empathy happens developmentally over time and with practice. What can I do to encourage this growth?
Notice out loud
The road to empathy has many steps and it starts with the power of noticing. This can be achieved by observing and communicating what you see in any social situation. This begins with the adult being the observer and verbal reporter so the child can notice with you. “I see that Jack is crying. He might be sad or mad. What can we do to help him?”
If your child approaches others and is inclined to grab a toy from another child, this is not because they are mean. Let’s assume positive intent. They are more likely focused on the toy they want more than the other child. They need help to observe and then appropriately respond “I see that Sarah is already playing with the doll. Did you want to have a turn too? What can we do?”
When you observe a child falling at the playground you can prompt an empathetic response by saying “I see that Sally just fell on the ground. How do you think she might feel right now? What can we do to help?”
When you observe a child trying to get something out of reach you can say “I see that Sally is having a hard time reaching that puzzle. She might be getting frustrated. What could we do?”
Labeling emotions helps your child to see what that emotion looks like. Label the emotions of others as you see them. Your child will begin to develop an association between the emotion and what that looks like in the physical body. This begins with your child being able to identify their own emotions and then they begin to be able to identify the emotions of others too. When my friend is smiling and laughing, they are happy. When my friend’s face is scrunched up and they are stomping their feet and yelling they are mad. When my friend is standing alone in the corner of the room they might be scared or lonely. Once children can identify the emotions of others, they can then begin to create an appropriate response.
After I notice and after I consider the feelings of others how do I respond? Children need lots of coaching on appropriate responses when they are very young but with practice they learn how to respond to the needs of others. We could ask Jack if he would like a hug. We could ask Sarah if we can have a turn when she is finished. We could set a timer for two minutes. We could ask Sarah if she would like a tissue or a Band-Aid. We could ask Sally if she needs a step stool or an adult to help her. Initially you will need to offer potential solutions to your child that they are able to do. You will be surprised to see that very soon they will come up with their own ideas.
Observe, label emotions, respond, practice. You will find many opportunities to practice this with your preschooler. They are not selfish they are young. However, they can develop lifelong skills to offer positive intent and empathy to others and this starts with us. Let’s model this to our children and coach them as they go! They want to be socially successful and we are here to offer them the needed tools.