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Create Empathetic Toddlers That Grow Into Empathetic Adults/ The Exact Phrases to Use!

Updated: Oct 3, 2023

Everyone seems to be talking about empathy or the lack thereof lately. Authors are writing about it and psychologists are studying it. I sometimes wonder if we really understand and agree on the meaning of the word let alone figure out how to create more of it.

So many of us seem to know what to eliminate in order to make room for more empathy. Permissive parenting, access to guns, violence in the home, video games, lack of self-regulation, a demon seed.

All of these things may be worth considering but there's another side to the coin. What do we do to actually create more of it? And when do we start?

After spending more than 40 years in early childhood education and earning a few degrees, let me share with you what I've learned.

Sympathy is "feeling pity, or feeling sorry for" someone. Many times we show sympathy by attending a ritual or sending condolences. Sympathy may be a real feeling or it may be a show of feelings that's seen as a duty or inconvenience.

True empathy is an understanding which produces appropriate and meaningful action. It's the ability to reflect and keep another's perspective and feelings in mind. It enhances the ability to be with others and support each other positively without giving up our own individual feelings.

So if true empathy is what we want to see more of, why don't we focus on creating it? It's a different and possibly very effective way of looking at things. Especially if we're working with toddlers.

That's because the brain connections that form in the first few years of life are important ones.

In the first few years of life, more than 1 million new neural connections form every second. After this period of rapid proliferation, connections are reduced through a process called pruning, which allows brain circuits to become more efficient. In light of these findings, focusing on early childhood only makes sense. -Center for the Developing Child, Harvard University-

In Ghosts From The Nursery (1997 p. 146), Karr-Morse and Wiley suggest we focus on the period from 10-18 months to prevent violence since that's when the connections are made between the prefrontal cortex and the limbic systems.

Young children learn through observation and listening. They also learn through trial and error. And all they really want to do is learn.

That's why I say these words over and over again without tiring of them.

  • It looks like you have a problem.

  • It sounds like you have a problem.

  • He's using it.

  • I'll make sure you get a turn when he's done.

  • He said "No?" That's OK. He still has to give you a turn.

  • She is using it now.

  • You can wait. You can do it. I know you can. Be a STAR. Smile Take A Breath And Relax

  • I can see and hear how much you want it now.

  • I'll help you wait.

  • I can set a timer so we remember.

  • I see you have a problem.

  • I'm staying calm. (take a big breath and let it out slowly)

  • Do it the safe way!

  • She has a body too.

  • She has skin and it hurt when you pushed her down.

  • She's crying because her knee hurts.

  • What could we do to make her feel better?

  • Give her a kiss? A hug? Talk to her? Tell her you'll be gentle next time?

  • Are you OK? (as opposed to "You're OK")

  • Later, we can talk about better ways to solve that problem.

That's how I gauge my own importance as a toddler specialist and teacher. I know when I use the right words and am able to maintain an air of calm control, I'm truly teaching peace. Why do these words and others like them matter so much?

During the first few years of life, children are extremely egotistical. It's a survival trait. It's up to us, as wise parents and teachers to guide them through that and into true empathy. We have to help them to create the right connections very early on.

Connections that don't rely on blame, bias, or bullying techniques. Connections that will serve them for the rest of their lives by supplying them with the basis for the attitudes they need for success and happiness.

Want to learn more about how to do this through tried and true methods?

Join me here, it's free.

Positive guidance and developmentally appropriate boundary setting are two of the biggest challenges in early childhood education.

You can find many more concrete ideas about problem-solving, learning, and non-violent communication on my blog, here.

Get the exact words to use when dealing with common childhood issues like cleaning up, tattling, or positive communication in this slideshow I designed for you, for free.

If you want to learn more about early childhood and brain research, check out our homepage here.

Early Childhood Rocks is a nonprofit organization dedicated to changing the world through early childhood education

Nanci J Bradley is an early childhood and family educator, author, teacher, family aerobics instructor, and an all-around fun-loving person. She believes in the power of sleep, healthy eating, lifelong learning, and most of all, PLAY! (click on the word) She studied early childhood ed at Triton College and received her BS in education in 1986 from NIU. She received her MA in human development from Pacific Oaks College in 2011. She lives and teaches in Madison WI.


“Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University.” Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, 4 Dec. 2017,

Derman-Sparks, Louise, et al. Anti-Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves. National Association for the Education of Young Children, 2020.

Karr-Morse, Robin, et al. Ghosts from the Nursery: Tracing the Roots of Violence. The Atlantic Monthly Press, 2013.

Rosenberg, Marshall B. Non-Violent Communication: A Language of Life: Create Your Life, Your Relationships & Your World in Harmony with Your Values. Puddle Dancer, 2003.

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