top of page

“Yes, 2-Year Olds are Capable of Empathy-Here’s How to Encourage the Essential Skill”

November 2022

Below is our second Montessori message of the school year focusing on the topic of empathy. Although the title of the article may indicate that it is only meant for parents of toddlers, there is lots of practical advice in this article for parents of preschool and kindergarten aged children as well. Hope you enjoy the article and will consider the information as you interact with your child. The strategies in this article are all ones that we use here at Pine Grove so the use of them at home can only help to strengthen our children’s empathy skills. Enjoy.

“Yes, 2-Year Olds are Capable of Empathy-Here’s How to Encourage the Essential Skill”


Young children are naturally egocentric. This is a normal part of development: children first see the world through their own eyes before they can see it through someone else’s. At around age two, children often believe that others think and feel the exact same way that they do. As parents and caregivers, we all want our children to eventually think beyond their own experience. We want them to be kind. A critical piece of that kindness is empathy, which is the ability to understand, share and connect to the feelings of someone else.

Here are some ways to support your toddler’s/preschooler’s developing empathy:

Read books and talk about character’s emotions

A 2016 study found that reading fiction can increase empathy: “fiction is the simulation of selves in interaction. People who read it improve their understanding of others.” When we read books to our children, we give them access to experiences both familiar (a child falling down and getting hurt at a park, for example) and unfamiliar (anything they haven’t lived). Relatable experiences allow your child to connect with a character and feel the feelings alongside them, while new ones are a window into emotions your child may not have grappled with yet.

The Lovevery books explore a range of feelings with real-life characters and situations your child can relate to. While you read, you can ask questions about the characters and what they feel, and imitate them:

+ Max looks like he really got hurt there. What would you do if you were there at the park with him? How could we make him feel better?

+ Bea is afraid of getting a shot from the doctor. Have you ever felt afraid of something? How does your face look when you’re scared?

+ Graham is really excited that his friends are coming over to celebrate his birthday. Let’s talk about your birthday. It’s only 9 months away. Are you feeling excited about it?

+ Look, the girl in Now That I’m Three dropped her plate on the floor and it was really surprising. Let’s make a surprised face together.

This is not a part of this article, but here is a list of children’s books from that model empathy and compassion for young readers:

Come with Me by Holly M. McGhee

The Rabbit Listened by Cori Doerrfeld

How to Be a Lion by Ed Vere

Hey, Little Ant by Phillip and Hannah Hoose

Adrian Simcox Does NOT Have a Horse by Marcy Campbell

The Smallest Girl in the Smallest Grade by Justin Roberts

Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Pena

Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson

Peace is an Offering by Annette LeBox

Pass It On by Sophy Henn

We’re all Wonders by R.J. Palacio

Emma and the Whale by Julie Case

Give your child opportunities to be independent

Between 24 and 36 months, your child will likely understand that they are their own person, distinct from others. This is a big deal – children are born believing that they and their primary caregiver are one and the same person, and they spend the first few years of life “separating”. Understanding that they are separate is an early stage in your child’s empathy development; as they become less dependent on others, they begin to build their own collection of experiences to draw upon when they empathize.

Here are a few ways to cultivate independence now:

+ If you haven’t before, consider asking permission before you give your child a hug. This respect towards their body shows them that you see them as their own person capable of making decisions.

+ Let them help as much as possible. Help at this age is often slow, incomplete and can be frustrating, but when your child is allowed to sweep the floor with a little dustpan and broom or mix ingredients in a bowl for dinner, they get to be part of the action in a way that feels empowering.

+ Have them start brushing their teeth and you finish. Toddlers and preschoolers can’t brush their teeth on their own just yet, but when you include them, they get a chance to feel self-sufficient.

Reframe apologies

When our children cause harm to others, many of us are quick to orchestrate an apology, but this can also be an opportunity to tap into your child’s growing understanding of empathy. Zero to three suggests the following: “A more meaningful approach can be to help children focus on the other person’s feelings. ‘Chandra, look at Sierra – she’s very sad. She’s crying. She’s rubbing her arm where you pushed her. Let’s see if she’s okay.’ This helps children to make the connection between the action (shoving) and the reaction (a friend who is sad and crying).”

By 24 months, children generally begin trying to comfort people they see in distress. This is largely and imitative behavior, mimicking what they’ve seen others do, but it’s an important piece of developing empathy. Once they have the capacity to comfort others, encouraging your child to do so (in the place of a hollow “I’m sorry”) is much more meaningful when they need to make something right.

Validate your child’s emotions

A 2018 study about emotional regulation found that children develop empathy more deeply when they’re more connected with their own emotions, particularly negative ones. In other words, it’s much easier to be kind and empathetic to others when we understand our own feelings first. Here are a few things you can try:

+ Label your child’s intense feelings. Doing this may feel counterintuitive, but describing what you see when your child is having a hard time can help them come out of it stronger and with more tools for next time: “You didn’t want to leave the park and I can see that you’re really upset about that. I understand why and I bet you’re really sad and angry to have to stop playing.”

+ Speak from the “I perspective.” When you speak through your own lense, it helps your child further understand that you have different experiences and emotions than they do: “It hurt when you hit me and I can’t let you do that.” In turn, encouraging them to speak that way; when they’re trying to express themselves, give them sentence starters like “I didn’t like it when….” Or “I’m sad because…”.

+ Praise their positive actions. When your child goes out of their way to show kindness towards someone else, point it out: “I noticed that you gave Marco a hug when he was so sad. That was really nice and it showed that you care about him. I think it helped him feel better.”

Model empathy and honesty with your own emotions

As with so many aspects of parenting, modeling empathy ourselves is one of the best ways of teaching it. One way to do this is to narrate when you’re having strong feelings yourself. When you can’t find a parking spot, for example, tell your child “I’m sorry I’m not paying attention to you, I can’t find a place to park and it’s making me feel angry and frustrated. I’ll take some deep breaths and keep looking.”


Featured Posts
Recent Posts
Follow Us
  • Facebook Basic Square
  • Twitter Basic Square
  • Google+ Basic Square
bottom of page