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How to Teach Toddlers Empathy Through Active Listening

Updated: Jul 28, 2023

Me: Any feedback on how to avoid major toddler meltdowns?

Friend: Have you tried empathy?

Me: I host training on empathy all the time. Of course, I know how important empathy is.

Friend: But have you tried empathy with your toddler?

Me:…….. Um

Modeling empathy allows children to understand and connect with the feelings of others. It creates trust, respect, and understanding, reducing defensiveness and anxiety. It is crucial in forming healthy bonds and promoting a positive and compassionate environment.

Effective communication skills and active listening are among the most important ways to cultivate empathy in toddlers. By teaching toddlers how to communicate non-judgmentally, we can help them understand and respond to the emotions of others, fostering empathy from an early age.

When I conduct workshops on empathy, participants often consider it a natural trait, but it is important to understand that it can be taught. Still, as you saw in my opening interaction, I overlooked the role empathy has in interactions with toddlers.

For context, having this tiny superhero in our lives has been the most joyous and rewarding experience ever! A child makes the bad days good and the good days better. It is not hyperbole to say their love and smiles are life-changing. This withstanding, things can get a little interesting when debates rage over nighttime popsicles.

Toddler: I want a popsicle

Me: We can’t have one before bed. We can have one tomorrow.

Toddler: I really want a popsicle.

Me: If we have sugar before bed, it can be bad for us.


I went to bed perplexed, considering I made a strong, logical case while the toddler only made an emotional one. How did this go wrong?

In my training, attendees often ask a similar question. I always respond with the following:

“You can’t rationalize with an emotional reaction; you can only empathize with it.”

This led to a conversation with a good friend.

Me: Any feedback on what can avoid toddler meltdowns? We recently had one over a popsicle.

Friend: Have you tried empathy?

Me: I host training on empathy all the time. Of course, I know how important empathy is.

Friend: Sure. But have you tried empathy with your toddler? It helps teach them how to manage and respond to emotions. It also encourages them to be more empathetic.

Me:….. Oh.

Empathy with toddlers includes active listening and affirming feelings. We avoid getting ahead of the child but allow them to talk through their feelings instead of telling them how they should feel.

Active listening is a fundamental aspect of effective communication with all ages. Encouraging your toddler to express their thoughts and feelings without interruption shows them that their emotions and opinions are important, building trust and opening avenues for empathy.

A few nights after our popsicle debate, our toddler made the request again. This was unsurprising because, as everyone will tell you, you don’t win power struggles; you create new ones later. But this time, I had empathy!

The interaction went like this:

Toddler: I want a popsicle

Me: We can’t snack before bed, sweetie.

Toddler: But I want one.

Me: I know you do. I wish I could have popsicles every night, too. Having them before bed, though, could make it hard to have a good night’s sleep.

Toddler: Yeah…. Can I have one tomorrow?

Me: If you sleep well and we have a positive day, yes!

Toddler: I will have a great day!

Me: Awesome. Love you, tiny superhero!

Toddler: Love you daddy!

In conclusion, teaching empathy through effective communication skills is a powerful way to promote emotional intelligence and positive social interactions. By actively listening, we help toddlers understand their emotions, encourage the expression of their feelings, model compassion, and create an empathetic environment. In fact, you might even cut down on nighttime snacks and increase bedtime hugs. 😊

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