By Talaris Institute
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During the second year of life, children begin to develop concern for other people, and often try to comfort them. This is called empathy, and it’s an important part of children’s emotional development.

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As early as two, children understand when you say things like, 'Hitting your little sister makes her frightened and sad'.

 

For example ...

Some days, it just doesn’t pay to be an adult. Your boss piles on another project. A client rejects your work. As you slowly walk toward the car, you find that the slow leak in the tyre has finally become a completely flat tyre.

When you arrive home, there is nothing to do but sit on the couch and turn on the television.

Then you notice your toddler standing a few feet away, his brow furrowed with concern. He wobbles toward you, climbs into your lap, and asks, ‘Daddy?’ Then he does what he does best – he hugs you. And of course, it works like a charm. You feel better right away.

He’s showing you empathy. And he’s only two years old.

This is a remarkable and heart-warming achievement. For years, scientists didn’t think young children could get beyond their own feelings or needs. Now we know they can. Research shows that during the second year of life, children begin to develop concern for other people, and often try to comfort them.

How empathy starts

We might all be born with a biological bent toward empathy.

Babies start at birth with the ability to respond to the emotions of others, imitating the facial expressions of their caregivers or bursting into tears if they hear another baby cry. By three months, babies respond differently to happy faces than they do to sad faces, showing that they can tell the difference between them. These responses aren’t really empathy yet, but they might be some of the first steps on the path to sharing the feelings of another person.

By the time their first birthdays arrive, big changes are taking place. Let’s say two babies are playing. On his way to grab a new toy, one little boy stumbles and falls, hurting his leg. What will the other one-year-old do? Will he notice? Will he pay attention?

Not only does he notice, he begins to look quite concerned. He might furrow his brow, or maybe stick out his lip. He might be feeling scared himself, wondering if something bad will happen to him. These responses are part of another step in the growth of empathy.

In one study, one-year-olds were shown videotapes of other children crying. These children began showing signs of distress, usually by sucking on their hands, their shirts or a toy. Feeling distress when another person is troubled isn’t quite empathy, because feeling bad yourself doesn’t necessarily mean that you feel bad for the other person. But seeing another person crying, and then feeling troubled by it, is moving closer to what we call empathy.

How empathy develops

Around a child’s first birthday, something almost magical happens – a child will begin to show concern for others. A research study looked at children’s responses to emotions as they grew through three age ranges:

  • 13-15 months old 
  • 18-20 months old 
  • 23-25 months old.

How the study worked
To do this study, the researchers trained mothers to become researchers themselves.

  1. They trained the mothers to observe their children’s responses to the emotions of others.
  2. The mothers did more than observe – they also ‘pretended’ to show different emotions to their children, like being sad, and then recorded how their children reacted.
  3. To add to the mothers’ observations, researchers visited once a month and observed (and in some cases videotape) the children.
  4. When the children were two, the mothers and children went to the laboratory. Here the mothers again pretended to be hurt or sad, and the children’s responses were recorded.

What the study found

  • 13-15 months: more than half the children had tried to hug, pat, or touch another person when they were showing distress. Scientists call this 'pro-social behaviour', which means that they not only responded to the emotion they saw, but they made an attempt to help the other person feel better. This doesn’t mean that children this young showed empathy all the time –  they didn’t –  but it shows some early signs of empathy.
  • 18-20 months: children showed increasing pro-social behaviour, and they responded in a wider variety of ways. Some of these included verbal responses (‘Are you okay?’), sharing goodies, trying to bring bandages or a blanket, or trying to help in other ways. 
  • 23-25 months: children showed even more empathy. All but one of the children in the study were showing concern and helping others, even without the encouragement of a parent or caregiver. And while they mainly showed empathy toward their mothers, they clearly showed concern for strangers also.

A word of caution

Although this research tells a wonderful story, we have to keep something in mind.

Even though children as young as 12 months can show empathy, it doesn’t mean they will show it every time. Sometimes young children might not show any empathy at all, and at times they might even laugh when they cause another person distress.

It’s important to remember that children are learning about how emotions work, and they will get better at showing empathy as they grow older.

Helpful parenting tips

  • Show empathy to your children. Young children (like all of us) love to receive empathy. Research shows that parenting with empathy and emotional guidance encourages healthy emotional growth.
  • Provide simple, clear explanations about how other people feel when they are sad or hurt. This is especially important if your child has caused these feelings in another (‘That makes Con feel bad when you call him names’). When this happens, be firm as you explain how these feelings work. 
  • Be a good role model for empathy. Children are some of the best copycats around, and they are likely to copy the ways they see you treat people. 
  • Praise your toddler’s early acts of empathy – they are wonderful signs of learning to care about other people. When your toddler gives up a favourite toy to a younger sibling who’s crying, make sure your toddler knows you appreciate this behaviour. 
  • Don’t expect empathy every time. Young children are still learning how emotions work, and how people get along with others. Encourage empathy, but don’t expect perfection.
Seek advice from your child health nurse, GP or other health professional if your child does not respond to other people’s emotions or share emotions with you, or if you have trouble reading your child’s emotions.
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  • Izard, C. E., Fantauzzo, C. A., Castle, J. M., Haynes, O. M., Rayias, M. F., & Putnam, P. H. (1995). The ontogeny and significance of infants' facial expressions in the first 9 months of life. Developmental Psychology, 31(6), 997-1013.

    Ungerer, J.A., Dolby, R., Waters, B., Barnett, B., Kelk, N., & Lewin, V. (1990). The early development of empathy: Self-regulation and individual differences in the first year. Motivation and Emotion, 14, 93-106.

    Zahn-Waxler, C. & Radke-Yarrow, K. (1990). The origins of empathic concern. Motivation and Emotion, 14, 107-130.

    Zahn-Waxler, C., Radke-Yarrow, K.,Wagner, E. & Chapman, M. (1992). Development of concern for others. Developmental Psychology, 28, 126-136.