Social Skills How to Help Your Three-Year-Old Develop Empathy

Empathy is a skill ― one that we can cultivate and strengthen with practice. Empathy means that we can imagine what someone else is thinking or feeling and then respond in a caring manner. Three-year-olds are starting to understand that other people have thoughts, feelings, likes, and dislikes that are different than their own. They are also beginning to understand that their actions can affect the emotions of others (e.g., "If I grab friend's toy, she will feel mad or sad.")

How to strengthen your child's empathy skills:

Model Empathy

Model empathy by reflecting your children's emotions and responding with compassion. For example, you might say, "You jumped when you heard that thunder. Thunder won't hurt you, but it can sound scary! Do you want to sit on my lap for a while?"

Read Stories

Research indicates that reading fiction promotes empathy. Picture books are an ideal way to both expose children to diverse cultures and talk with them about struggles people face locally and globally. These three book lists ― curated by Common Sense Media, National Public Radio and the Cooperative Children's Book Center―are a good place to start. While reading, pause to ask questions such as, "How do you think she feels right now?" or "What do you think he needs?"

Practice Being a Good Sport

Playing catch and talking about being part of a team can help your child develop empathy skills and practice being a good sport.

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Engage in Pretend Play

When children take on different imaginative roles ― from parent to superhero to a favorite story character ― they quite literally practice putting themselves in someone else's shoes. Dress-up clothes, dolls and stuffed animals can be tools kids use to engage in this type of play.

Talk About Your Thoughts and Feelings

According to research, when parents talk about how they are thinking and feeling, it helps their children's "theory of mind" development. In other words, it shows them that you have distinct feelings that may be different than theirs in a given moment. During the course of a day, try saying, "Right now I feel happy because . . ." or "I feel frustrated because . . ." or "Right now I am thinking about . . . and that makes me feel . . ."

Make a Healthy “Feelings Faces” Snack

Creating faces on this fun snack can provide an opportunity for you and your child to talk about feelings and emotions.

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Help Your Child Manage Emotions with Daniel Tiger

Through imagination, creativity and music, Daniel and his friends learn how to manage big and overwhelming feelings using strategies grounded in the teachings of Mister Rogers.

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Activity Finder: Learn With Your Three-Year-Old

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