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When Do Kids Develop Empathy?
When do kids develop empathy? Generally, this is quite a difficult question without a clear answer. Some researchers have noted that empathy is evident in children as young as eight to 16 months (Roth-Hanania et al., 2011). This study concluded that children develop modest adaptive and cognitive empathy levels before age two. Prosocial and self-distress reactions showed to increase after the age of two.
Other researchers state that truly showing empathy means an individual needs to understand emotions and be able to label them. According to Decety (2010), various studies have shown that children around four years old can understand and show empathy for another person’s perspective and their reactions to an event.
Cognitive empathy and affective empathy are different in the presentation and understanding of children and adults. Cognitive empathy relates to understanding another person’s feelings and emotions pertaining to a specific situation. Affective empathy relates to feeling empathy toward another person and displaying an emotional reaction. A young infant might show an empathic response to another baby crying (affective empathy), but they aren’t able to verbalize and cognitively comprehend why they are showing this reaction (cognitive empathy).
As parents, we know what an important role we play in modeling the behaviors we want our children to learn. Thus, we must model empathy in front of our children. For example, if we see a dog being mistreated we could try to help them, and we would show our sadness or distress and state, “That’s sad”. We want to focus on teaching empathy in real-time as well as theoretically.
Moshi has some excellent worksheets to learn about empathy, laughter, and gratitude – click here for a sample of these!
Here are some additional strategies to help increase empathy in our children:
As mentioned, we want to model appropriate and empathic reactions to real-life situations. We can also create moments, where we point out if we are feeling excited, and then explain why we are excited. It is important to focus on all emotional situations and not just sad ones when we are teaching empathy. Another important note here is to model coping strategies for your child from a young age. If you share that you are sad about something, you can show them that crying is okay and then perhaps ask for a hug. We want our children to know that what they are feeling is always valid and important, yet there are ways to self-regulate and self-soothe.
A great way to teach your child is to show them a scenario and then ask them “what happened” and “what do you feel”. For example, if you show them a picture of a girl crying because her ice cream fell on the floor, you can ask your child to describe the scene. Then ask how they would feel if that happened to them or someone they knew. Depending on your child’s age, it’s possible to help them see why another person would feel a certain way by looking for “clues” in the scene. The more realistic the scenario is, the better. It might be something that you can generalize to the child’s own life, too.
Exposing your kids to some situations where they are aware of others in need is a great way to help them develop empathy. Volunteering at an animal shelter or taking some home-baked cookies to a nursing home could show them the beauty of caring for others. We also want to ensure that our child increases their coping skills and self-regulation after an emotional encounter and understands how to create boundaries. If we are constantly focused on helping others, it might lead to our feeling drained and exhausted. Model for your child how to take a break from looking after others. Ask them what they would like to do to feel calm, happy, and relaxed at the end of a more empathic day out.
Enjoy the journey! These times when your kids develop empathy can be very special for both of you.
Decety, J. (2010). The neurodevelopment of empathy in humans. Developmental Neuroscience, 32(4), 257–267.
Roth-Hanania, R., Davidov, M., & Zahn-Waxler, C. (2011). Empathy development from 8 to 16 months: Early signs of concern for others. Infant Behavior and Development, 34(3), 447–458.