'I know how you feel': When do children develop empathy?

Dr. Elaine Heffner
The roots for developing empathy seem clearly to be there from a very young age.

How early in their development are children able to identify with the feelings of others? What we think of as empathy has been receiving considerable attention these days. The widespread experience of loss caused by the pandemic has been added to by recent loss due to racial violence. 

Teaching children to consider the feelings of others is a concern of parents. Children are asked if they strike out at someone, “How do you think that made her feel?” Sometimes a parent who has been hit may do the same to her child, with the idea of showing him what it feels like. Their idea behind these responses is to help a child identify with what someone else is experiencing.

There has long been an interest in determining how early in life children are capable of empathy - the ability to mentally enter into the feelings of another person. Observing 2- and 3-year-old children in groups, it is fascinating to watch their faces while listening to a story. They register not only the emotional content of the story but also the emotions projected by the teacher as she is reading.

Impressive is how often one can see a child attempt to comfort another child who is distressed, such as taking a toy over to a child who is crying and offering it to her. Sometimes a child will put his arm around another child who is upset. At times an entire class seems transfixed by a child who is very upset, and the teacher needs to help the children process what is happening.

If one child begins to cry after her parent has left, her reaction seems contagious as one child after another begins to cry, too. In such situations, the first child’s crying arouses in the others feelings of loss at separation that are still only just below the surface. The crying of others is not so much identification with the first child as the arousal of similar feelings of their own - a step toward empathy.

In a video made by a researcher, a little boy is playing with a workbench toy hammering pegs through a hole, helped by his mother holding the bench steady. Instructed by the researcher, the mom pretends that the child has hit her finger with the hammer and cries out in pain. At first laughing, the child again tries to hit her finger with the hammer. When Mom responds with anger, he looks confused and worried and tries unsuccessfully to resume the play. Finally, he kisses her finger and they make up. The child’s first reaction is not at all an uncommon one.

What happens in such a situation is that a child is often unclear about what has happened to produce the response that follows. He repeats the event in order to try to figure it out. In this case the child was not sure whether or not this was part of the play with his Mom. Were they having fun?

In situations like this we may interpret the child’s behavior as anger or aggression, when in fact it may be a question: “What happened?” Often what is needed is to clarify with your child what he did that caused the response he got.

The roots for developing empathy seem clearly to be there from a very young age. As with other areas of development, learning plays a big part, and parents play a big part in the teaching that goes with it.

Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: The Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: The Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at goodenoughmothering.com.