We have all heard the word empathy before. Empathy drives our society, and is discussed by early childhood practitioners as being an essential skill for young children. But, what is empathy, and what does it mean to different people? Merriam Webster’s Dictionary defines empathy as “The feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions : the ability to share someone else’s feelings.” (2014). To empathize with someone’s plight means to feel concern with respect to the experiences that another person has faced; those experiences which shaped choices that other person ultimately made. There is a distinct difference between empathy and permissiveness. We can feel empathy for someone who continually makes questionable decisions because they do not possess the necessary adaptive skills. This does not mean that we overlook their questionable choices; it means that we feel for that person. They were not privy to the types of life skills many of us received in our formative years.

Now, how do we apply this to a child? What do we do when we are already running late, and our child has plopped down on the floor, and is proclaiming that they will not get up? Perhaps they are feeling upset because they feel they did not have enough time to read a favorite book, or finish building that very special castle. This situation calls for us to pivot our attention to the fact that our young child is still learning time management skills and emotional regulation. We can empathize with our child as he or she is in the throes of their standoff with us. It IS hard learning the lifelong skill of time management and emotional regulation! We do not; however, blindly accept behavior such as name-calling or physical aggression. (Shuford, J., 2008).Here’s how we can handle this type of situation:

A child is sitting near the front door of their house. The family was supposed to have left ten minutes earlier, and everyone is finally ready to go with the exception of their three year-old daughter. The three year-old is stamping her feet, yelling, and kicking at anyone who comes near her. Rather than go down the road of chastising her for her behavior (i.e., “We don’t act this way!”), we can pivot:

Parent: “I hear you. Your feet are going like this, and your face looks like this.” (model the facial expressions and posture for the child).

Child: “I’m not going! I’m not!”

Parent: “You seem to be feeling angry that you didn’t have enough time in your bedroom.”

Child: “I’m not going!”

Parent: “It’s hard when you can’t finish playing with your dollhouse.”

Child: “I want to play now!”

Parent: “Playing now is not a choice. You can choose to play when we get home, or right after lunch. Which is best for you?”

At this point, depending upon the child’s emotional state, you may need to repeat the choices again. Perhaps, the child is so upset that they don’t appear to hear your words. This can sometimes happen, because providing empathy sometimes results in a short-term increase in crying and yelling. When we use the tool of empathy, we provide an emotional label for our children, and the notion that all feelings are valid. If you have not already done so, start by recognizing your own feelings; label and validate them. Once we understand what we are feeling, we can move on to understanding the cause of our upset, remembering that feelings are temporary, and focus on what we can do to solve a problem. We must be able to apply this skill to ourselves before we can offer it to others. By offering this tool to our children, we are providing them with a lifelong skill that is so important to every facet of their lives; professionally and personally!




Merriam-Webster, Inc. (2014). On-line Dictionary and Thesaurus.

Shuford, J. (2008). What Does Empathy Look Like? The Transformer.


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