In our society, empathy is a critical component to helping us connect with others and interact with compassion and understanding. Being able to recognize another person’s emotions and place yourself in their shoes, however, is more of a complex skill than most people realize. It is not something you either have or don’t have; we can each possess different degrees of empathy, and we can also continue to enhance our capacity for empathy throughout our lives.

Even though children don’t have the cognitive skills to understand empathy fully until the age of 8 or 9, parents can begin teaching empathy to their children early on. Even at six months old, babies look to parents to see how they react to strangers.

However an important developmental age is between the ages of 18 and 24 months. This is when a toddler first realizes that other people have feelings that may be different from his own, and begins to recognize himself as a separate person. At this stage, toddlers are able to soak up the social cues taught by their parents, and build a foundation of strong social interaction that can help them grow into secure, compassionate adults.

Here are some tips to help teach toddlers empathy:

  1. Be what you want to see. When parents model strong social interactions with others, children watch, learn, and mimic that behavior. When you show empathy to your friends, family, and strangers, your children learn that is how they should respond and interact with others.
  2. Involve children in charitable activities. Even toddlers learn from accompanying you to donate used blankets and clothing to the local homeless shelter. When your children
  3. Ask your child to think of others and roleplay. For example, if your child shares that his friend is moving away, ask your child not only how he feels about it, but also ask him to try to imagine what his friend feels about moving away. Empathy takes practice, and the more you talk with your child and ask them to think about how others may be feeling, the more your child will begin to empathize with others on his own.
  4. Validate your child’s feelings. When your child is angry or upset, ask him to verbalize what he is feeling. Help your child learn to recognize and cope with these feelings, not push them aside. By learning how to be aware of his own feelings, he will be better equipped to learn to deal with others who are experiencing difficult emotions as well.
  5. Praise your child when he shows empathy toward others.Even though he may not realize what he is doing at the time, by pointing out that it was really wonderful how you saw him reach out and give a hug to that little boy who was hurt on the playground, you are reinforcing the importance and goodness of being compassionate toward others.
  6. Play a non-verbal guessing game. When you’re at the park, ask your child to guess how the kid on the swings is feeling. “She’s laughing and her eyes are wide open, I think she’s happy and excited to be on the swings. What do you think?” Or, “See that boy sitting by himself with his arms crossed, looking only at the ground? How do you think he is feeling?”
  7. As children get older, you can begin to engage them on a regular basis in my empathic process. Each person gets equal time to talk without interruption, and each child is invested in ideas and solutions. Everyone’s feelings are considered. This process helps reinforce your basic social interaction modeling and teachings within your own family dynamic.

Teaching children empathy from a young age has many benefits, from helping them build a strong core to deflect peer pressure and preventing bullying, to helping them grow into secure adults with the capacity to have healthy, close relationships with others. Remember to have patience with your children; empathy is a complex skill that takes time to learn and understand.  


  • Dr. Gail Gross

    Author and Parenting, Relationships, and Human Behavior Expert

    Dr. Gail Gross, Ph.D., Ed.D., M.Ed., a member of the American Psychological Association (APA) and member of APA Division 39, is a nationally recognized family, child development, and human behavior expert, author, and educator. Her positive and integrative approach to difficult issues helps families navigate today’s complex problems. Dr. Gross is frequently called upon by national and regional media to offer her insight on topics involving family relationships, education, behavior, and development issues. A dependable authority, Dr. Gross has contributed to broadcast, print and online media including CNN, the Today Show, CNBC's The Doctors, Hollywood Reporter, FOX radio, FOX’s The O’Reilly Factor, MSNBC, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Times of India, People magazine, Parents magazine, Scholastic Parent and Child Magazine, USA Today, Univision, ABC, CBS, and KHOU's Great Day Houston Show. She is a veteran radio talk show host as well as the host of the nationally syndicated PBS program, “Let’s Talk.” Also, Dr. Gross has written a semi-weekly blog for The Huffington Post and has blogged at since 2013. Recently, Houston Women's Magazine named her One of Houston's Most Influential Women of 2016. Dr. Gross is a longtime leader in finding solutions to the nation’s toughest education challenges. She co-founded the first-of-its kind Cuney Home School with her husband Jenard, in partnership with Texas Southern University. The school serves as a national model for improving the academic performance of students from housing projects by engaging the parents. Dr. Gross also has a public school elementary and secondary campus in Texas that has been named for her. Additionally, she recently completed leading a landmark, year-long study in the Houston Independent School District to examine how stress-reduction affects academics, attendance, and bullying in elementary school students, and a second study on stress and its effects on learning. Such work has earned her accolades from distinguished leaders such as the Dalai Lama, who presented her with the first Spirit of Freedom award in 1998. More recently, she was honored in 2013 with the Jung Institute award. She also received the Good Heart Humanitarian Award from Jewish Women International, Perth Amboy High School Hall of Fame Award, the Great Texan of the Year Award, the Houston Best Dressed Hall of Fame Award, Trailblazer Award, Get Real New York City Convention's 2014 Blogging Award, and Woman of Influence Award. Dr. Gross’ book, The Only Way Out Is Through, is available on Amazon now and offers strategies for life’s transitions including coping with loss, drawing from dealing with the death of her own daughter. Her next book, How to Build Your Baby’s Brain, is also available on Amazon now and teaches parents how to enhance their child’s learning potential by understanding and recognizing their various development stages. And her first research book was published by Random House in 1987 on health and skin care titled Beautiful Skin. Dr. Gross has created 8 audio tapes on relaxation and stress reduction that can be purchased on Most recently, Dr. Gross’s book, The Only Way Out is Through, was named a Next Generation Indie Book Awards Silver Medal finalist in 2020 and Winner of the 2021 Independent Press Awards in the categories of Death & Dying as well as Grief. Her latest book, How to Build Your Baby’s Brain, was the National Parenting Product Awards winner in 2019, the Nautilus Book Awards winner in 2019, ranked the No. 1 Best New Parenting Book in 2019 and listed among the Top 10 Parenting Books to Read in 2020 by BookAuthority, as well as the Next Generation Indie Book Awards Gold Medal winner in 2020 and Winner of the 2021 Independent Press Awards in the category of How-To. Dr. Gross received a BS in Education and an Ed.D. (Doctorate of Education) with a specialty in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Houston. She earned her Master’s degree in Secondary Education with a focus on Psychology from the University of St. Thomas in Houston. Dr. Gross received her second PhD in Psychology, with a concentration in Jungian studies. Dr. Gross was the recipient of Kappa Delta Pi An International Honor Society in Education. Dr. Gross was elected member of the International English Honor Society Sigma Tau Delta.