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The Development of Empathy
As children enter their second year of life they are standing on the edge of a developmental cliff. They are separating from their parents and defining an individual identity, a “self” – and they are recognizing that there is an entire universe outside of their home and family with which they can actually interact and, brace yourself…have an impact on!
Often times, our young two and three-year-olds are asked to dive into the first structured peer environment in their lives…school! The school year constantly offers new growth opportunities in the realm of social development and each child is in search of the answer to an important question: “How can I be one in a group of many and get my needs met?”
Empathy is commonly defined as one’s ability to recognize, perceive, and experientially feel the emotion of another. By the age of two, children normally begin to display the fundamental behaviors of empathy by having an emotional response that corresponds with another person.
For example, children will recognize tears as sadness and will actually be able to integrate and understand in their own body how that sadness feels. Another good indicator of this development of empathy is when children are able to use “false” sadness or smiles to obtain a goal (attention, to please others, etc.) These behaviors tell us that not only can they recognize the feeling another person is having, but they also understand the impact it has on others.
In the early stages of empathy development it is helpful to guide children to pair language with their own emotions so they are able to better understand their various emotional responses.
“You’re feeling so angry. You want a turn with that truck right now. It’s hard to wait.”
“Oh, I see you are sad. You’re really missing mom right now.”
By helping children identify and label their own emotions, we are then ready to use those same skills for their peers. During this second phase we can support our children to notice facial cues, body language, and verbal messages that give us information about what their friend might be feeling.
“Sarah looks sad….see her tears? She fell down on the rocks and hurt her knee. Ouch, that hurts.”
“David looks scared. Are you feeling worried about this chasing game, David?"
Once children are able to identify their friends’ emotions fairly accurately, we can then practice responding to those feelings in a way that demonstrates empathy and compassion.
“Lilly is feeling sad. She’s missing her mommy. Let’s get her a tissue together.”
“Oh, I see Johnny fell down. He’s sad because his knee hurts. Do you think he might like an ice pack?”
If it happens to be our child who participated in the friend being hurt, it is wise for us to remember that our job as the adult in the process is to model compassion, kindness, and nurturing behaviors and to support the child’s development of empathic understanding, NOT to impose our ideas about how the children should nurture each other. Forced apologies don’t work!
Children who are forced to apologize are focused on pleasing you, not helping the friend feel better. Often times an apology becomes part of the consequence of the action….is it any wonder we’re reluctant to apologize in our culture?
In addition, the upset friend isn’t left feeling truly cared for if they are receiving an unauthentic apology and your child often feels resentment towards this friend for the awkward outcome. The result? Neither child has their needs met, and a real learning moment has been missed. Try this instead:
“Max, please remember to be so gentle with your friends. That hurt David’s body. David, I’m so sorry you got pushed. That was scary, wasn’t it…..would you like a hug?”
The goal is for us to create the climate for compassion to bloom and grow and to give children modeling and lots of opportunities for practice. When they’re ready, it will evolve naturally and beautifully. Until then, show them how it’s done! Modeling heart-felt apologies is the best teaching you can offer your child.
The development of this empathy and the nurturing skills that often come along with it are amazing things to watch. The genuine love and care that is offered, and the look of gratitude and joy when it is received can just take your breath away.
These little human beings are learning how it feels to be a friend, how to be a peaceful and kind member of a community, and how to be one’s fullest and most expressed self inside of that community. A big job for a little person, but one with a lifetime of rewards.