Social Skills How to Help Your Four-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. Most four-year-olds 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 affect the emotions of others (e.g., "If I scribble on my friend's paper, she will feel mad or sad").

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 next to me 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?"

Engage in Pretend Play

When children take on different 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.

Dress Up

Playing dress up can help your child develop imagination and creativity. In this game, your child can put together fun and creative outfits for Daniel Tiger and his friends.

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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 . . ."

Playing with Others!

Playing a game of 'hot potato' and talking about how it felt to win or lose each round can help your child develop good sportsmanship skills.

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Talk About the Thoughts and Feelings of Others

Give kids practice imagining how other people are feeling. For example, use language such as, "When you took away your friend's toy, how did she feel inside?" Talk to them about how people are both similar and different. For example, we all need food, but the baby can't share your sandwich quite yet. We all need love, but a cat may not want a hug. Some plants require full sun, and some blossom in the shade. Explore how you can help friends, family and community members in ways that meet their specific needs.

Oops! A Game for Dealing with Embarrassment

Playing this pants matching game and talking about or watching the related Arthur video can prompt a discussion on how to deal with embarrassing moments.

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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 Four-Year-Old

Explore our Age-by-Age Guide: