Empathy by the Ages

Empathy is the ability to understand and relate to or vicariously experience another’s emotions, thoughts or experiences.  Feral children, those raised without human contact, are known for (among other things) their lack of ability to learn to speak a human language and lack of empathy.  This has led scientists to conclude that the ability to experience and express empathy is significantly influenced by nurture.

In the realm of abnormal psychology, lack of developmentally appropriate empathetic behavior in young children is a key warning sign for conditions such as autism, conduct, bipolar and other psychotic disorders. Most parents need not worry about their child developing a psychological disorder marked by lack of empathy (these cases are usually extreme), but many of us do wonder if our children are on target in their development of empathy.

The ability to display empathetic behaviors is usually tied to a child’s exposure to effective discipline.  Children from overly severe and critical homes and children from very relaxed, permissive homes can both experience problems in their development of empathy.  It is difficult to separate a discussion of empathy from the topic of discipline.  I refer all readers to take 20 mins or so to read my article on effective discipline.  In this article, you will find a brief review of empathy by the ages and suggestions for developing empathy in young children, apart from using effective discipline.

Infants and Empathy

Baby is just playing on the street

0-9 Months:

Expectations: Very little abilty to demonstrate empathy.  Babies will mimic your emotions: expressions of anger and frustration will result in crying and anxious behaviors; smiles and love will be reciprocated with squeals and delight.

Parent Actions: Meet infant’s needs consistently with love.  Take a break when necessary to be refreshed.  Parenting is hard work!

Many historical developmental scholars (including Freud and Piaget) did not believe that infants can display empathetic behaviors.  However, modern research points to signs that even newborns have innate abilities to empathize with others.  For instance, one study demonstrated that newborns engage in sympathetic crying when they hear other babies crying.  While these studies are scientifically interesting, it is still too early to expect your child to display or be taught empathetic behavior.  Instead, infants need to be cared for and have their needs met consistently, as this fuels healthy attachment and helps the infant’s brain to develop normally so that, as they grow, they will have the ability to learn and demonstrate empathy.

Therefore, do not expect your newborn to understand a frazzled expression or a yell.  Angry interactions and abusive behaviors resulting from the frustions of caring for a baby are ineffective in stopping the baby’s challenging behaviors.  Instead, they cause anxiety and insecure attachments which fuels more crying and anxious behaviors (biting, hitting, feeding complications, avoiding eye-contact, etc…).  This is why shaking a baby (or other abuse) only makes them cry louder.  If your ability to demonstate empathy and care for your baby decreases (as it does for every parent at some point) and you feel worn out, the best thing you can do for your baby is to take a break.  Don’t expect that you can do it all on your own.  Parenting can be the most challenging job in the world and yet the most meaningful and rewarding.

When refreshed, enjoy baby!  Hold, cuddle and stare deeply into your child’s eyes.  Rock, smile and sing to them.  Speak in motherese (higher pitched voice that adults naturally use with babies).  When your baby cries, pick them up within a reasonable time frame.  Meet their needs with love and compassion.  In doing so, you will be setting your child up for an empathetic future.

9 – 18 Months

Expect: Egocentric behaviors with sporadic displays of empathy, emotional mimicking, behavior experiments that illicit emotion

Parent Actions: Label emotions, set gentle boundaries for interactions, provide consistent love, care & affection

Around the age of 9 months, children become increasing more aware of their ability to move, engage and communicate with the world around them.  Children transition from babbling to talking and crawling to walking during the 9 to 18 month period.  As children begin to move and speak they learn that they have control over their world.  If they want a toy, they learn to ask for it or go fetch it themselves.  You may see a perfectly healthy and normal baby tackle another for a toy or begin shrieking hysterically if their toy is snatched.  These behaviors are normal and necessary for development.  Instead of responding overly emotionally, calmly help your child develop empathy for their friends by labeling emotions.   “You look angry.  Zack took your toy.”  “I feel frustrated.  I hurt my toe again.”  Point out or find pictures of faces that display emotions.  Begin by labeling the face’s emotion and then begin asking your child to help you choose the appropriate emotion.  This exercise is easy to incorporate into reading time.  Also, there are “flash card” sets made for this purpose that are fun to clip on the fridge or on your dry-erase board learning center.

Infants between 9 to 18 months of age become increasingly more aware of other’s emotions.  They may do things just to test other’s responses to their behavior.  For instance, if you looked upset the first time your child took off with your cell phone, they will likely do this again to see what will happen the second time (or third or fourth!).  They have so much to learn about the world.  When they upset you by acting egocentrically, is it inappropriate to label them as “bad” or “naughty”.  Think of them, instead,as inquisitive and experimental.  They have much to learn out about what emotions are and what they mean.  Behavior experiments are required for them to discover emotions and empathy.  For more on how to manage behavior experiments in babies and toddlers, read Effective Disciple.

Although being primarily egocentric at this age, you will notice some empathetic behaviors.  Older babies still engage in emotional mimicking, just as younger babies do (and adults too at times!).  Older babies may cry when others do, or act out when others demonstrate negative behaviors.  For example, if you have had a bad day and are short and snappy with your baby (don’t be too hard on yourself, we all have bad days) then you may notice that your baby will be more touchy and emotional in response to you.  This response is primarily because babies crave consistency and lack the scope to understand change.  When your demeanor changes they feel anxious and anxiety may lead to hitting, avoidance or crying.  Also, like their younger counterparts, older babies will mimic your happy and joyful emotions out of empathy.  It is hard for an older baby to keep crying when you initiate peek-a-boo and surprise them with a delighted and happy expression.


Toddlers and Empathy

Paral 12a

18 to 24 Months

Expect: Egocentric behaviors with some demonstrations of empathy, empathetic play on occasion, emotional mimicking

Parent Actions: Label emotions, narrate experiences, effective discipline, provide firm boundaries when your child hurts another, provide positive recognition of empathetic behavior, provide loving and consistent care

Between the ages of 18 months to 24 months, you may notice your child’s new social boldness and heightened interest in the people around them.  They now engage with the world, speak and play at parks.  They will thoughtfully watch others to learn how to behave in new and different scenarios.  They also have very basic survival instincts that manifest when guarding their “property” or security (examples: stranger anxiety, inability to share).  Fights (or shall I say brawls) over toys and difficulty taking turns peek at this age.  They will not understand why they cannot just walk to the front of the line and slide down the slide when others are waiting.  They will not understand why another child will not leave the ride-on car when they want to play with it.  They will understand that when the child cries, that child is sad, but they will not always connect the crying with their actions.

Keep in mind, that toddlers at this age, are just beginning to interact with the world.  They have a great deal to learn and learning take time and lots of trials.  While egocentric behavior can upset or harm others, it is a perfect forum for teaching empathy.  Therefore, this is a perfect age to begin narrating all of life’s comings and goings.  Narration is ideal because it consists of statements instead of judgments.  “You wanted the truck.  You pushed your friend to get it.  Your friend is crying now.”  It seems silly to say, but it is helpful for 18 to 24 month-olds to hear.

It is appropriate to teach your child the social rules of play/engagement at this age.  It is inappropriate to expect them to do it perfectly.  It is inappropriate to give harsh punishments for not sharing, but it is appropriate to effectively discipline for biting, pushing and hitting.   If you rchild hits another child at this age, or shall I say when your child hits another, it is completely normal and is a great opportunity to teach empathy.  “Sarah, I saw you hit Ethan.  You look angry.  Ethan looks sad.  It hurts to be hit.  In the future you can tell Ethan ‘mad’ when you are upset with him.  Hitting hurts and is not OK.  Let’s say ‘sorry’ and give Ethan a hug.”

Apologies at this age are more for practice than for developing a real understanding of contrition and resolution.  Toddlers need practice apologizing and using gentle touches after a physical confrontation.  You can also coach them to use words to resolve their conflict, but don’t expect them to be able to do so on their own.  Typically, conflict is resolved at this age with screaming matches and physical force.  Toddlers from 18 to 24 months do not have developed vocabularies and enough introspection to be able to label emotions and use words in confrontation.

Finally, be sure to acknowledge your child’s efforts in empathy when they occur.  This can look like your child caring for a baby doll or sharing a toy with a friend.  When you see a toddler display empathy to a human, animal or object, instead of saying “good job”, describe what you see them doing.  “I see you shared your truck with Justin. Look!  Justin looks so happy now.”  Your goal is to cause them to develop pleasure from being empathetic.  If their empathy results in your praise, they will likely want to be empathetic only when they need affirmation.  While, if they learn how to enjoy being empathetic by seeing it’s positive results on those around them, they will strive to be empathetic in the future just because it creates joy.

2 Years to 3 Years

Expect: Egocentric behaviors coupled with empathetic behavior, empathetic play coupled with aggressive pretend play, tendency to classify people as good or bad, emotional mimicking becomes more sporadic

Parent Actions: Label emotions, narrate experiences, effective discipline, provide firm boundaries when your child hurts another, provide positive recognition of empathetic behavior, provide loving and consistent care for child to learn from, begin teaching manners

Have you noticed that the “Parent Actions” list is growing larger with each phase?  That is because your job is becoming more complex as your child grows.  Your child is taking on more and more responsibility of their physical care, but are now requiring more investment into their character.  This is hard work!  The actions you have taken in the past to help them develop empathy are still important and as they grow you will continue to weave in new methods to engage their expanding capacities to learn and develop.

Keeping in mind all our other practices from the previous phases (especially effective discipline), let’s learn more about how 2 to 3 year old’s see the world.  Toddlers at this age are very good at observing what goes on around them, but are not skilled at interpreting what they see.  Most of the time, their assessments are completely off.  This is not their fault after all, they haven’t had much time to develop scope and context.  To counteract their limited ability to make accurate assessments of the world, children use a black and white construct of the world.

A black and white construct is one in which children will categorizes people as “good” or “bad”.  They will accept the “good” and reject the “bad” out of protection and preservation for their own survival.  It is hard for toddlers to see shades of gray in themselves or in the world around them.  It is especially important, then, to understand the child’s need to classify everything as good or bad, but also teach them that mistakes happen and that people may do things that are “bad”, but that does not make them “bad”.

If your child pushes over another child on the playground and is told that he is a “bad boy”, your child might grow to believe this and feel that he is unable to be “good” and so learning empathy and kindness do not matter.  He is a “bad guy”, not a “good guy”.  “Bad guys” are mean, “good guys” are nice.  Labeling other’s behaviors and emotions, while being careful not to label the person or group as “bad” or “good” is very, very important in your child’s ability to believe in themselves and their ability to be empathetic.  Giving your child mercy, asking for forgiveness when you make a mistake and offering unlimited chances for your toddler to try again is crucial for teaching your toddler empathy.

Parents are advised to begin teaching their children manners around age 2.  You may elect to teach them sooner (as many children are able to learn them around 12-18 months), but manners tend to be more rote than reflexive prior to age two.  Around the age of 2 and 3, children gain the ability to have insights into the importance of manners for themselves and those around them.  Manners are born from an empathetic need to politely impose on others at times and the ability to use them appropriately and sincerely is a good indicator that your child can understand, relate and empathize with others.  Do not expect your toddler to be able to use manners consistently at this age and do not shame them for forgetting, but also do not give into demands.  Stay positive, consistent and gentle and they’ll pick manners up easily when they are ready.


Young Children and Empathy

Outdoor portrait of a cute young black girl playing with a swin

4 to 5 Years

Expect: Combination ego-centrism and empathy, empathetic play coupled with aggressive pretend play, black & white classifications, some emotional mimicking, emerging ability to consistently empathize with others, able to use manners

Parent Actions: Label emotions, narrate experiences, effective discipline, positive recognition of empathetic behavior, love & consistency, request the use of manners, initiate conversations about and opportunities to learn about empathy

A 4 to 5 year old child will demonstrate the ability to empathize.  They generally understand how their actions can affect others and can use manners to politely impose upon people.  They are by no means ready to do so consistency and still need lots of mercy and grace.  But, you can lovingly request that your child say “please” and “thank you”, wait in line, take turns and not snatch toys.

Children at this age are much more conversational and can engage with you in thoughtful discussions about why and how to use empathy when engaging with the world.  They are also entering school and will learn about social dynamics as well as develop an identity away from home.  When your child is upset with another child’s behavior try to hold your emotions back.  Ask them questions about what occurred, how they feel, how the other person may feel, and what they think should be done to resolve the issue.  Try to ask questions that will lead the child in the direction of a fair, empathetic resolution.  When your child upsets another child, use a similar line of questioning.  Challenge your children to help other children when they are hurt or upset, even if they did not cause the situation.

Young children can learn to be mindful of other’s needs for privacy and space at this age and can understand that their desire to run, scream, cry or be boisterous must, at times, be tempered given their environment.  They can learn to be concerned for and help their friends and family.  It is also a great age to introduce children to the concept of scarity and the need to share and care for those who are less fortunate than they.  They can understand what wanting something feels like and can understand disappointment when they don’t get what they want.  They can be taught to feel concern for others who are poor, needy, disabled or different.  Intentional lessons in empathy are important.  Provide your child the opportunity to look for needs that they can meet.  For example, share a toy, play with another busy mother’s baby, help an elderly neighbor get her newspaper, ask a new friend at school to play, make a care-package for a impoverished child overseas, etc…   Asking your young child questions that can lead them to choose to engage in empathetic behaviors is much more effective and meaningful than telling the child they must do a certain task.  Never underestimate your young child’s ability to be empathetic.  They have such big hearts at this age.  Their thoughts and actions can be touching and inspiring!


Empathy begins at home.  Intentional integration of empathy education, beginning at birth, can yield amazing and rewarding results as your child grows.  Empathy begins with the mom and dad.  Your display of empathy to your child, the grocery clerk, your spouse, the neighbors, etc… is contagious.  Your child will learn the most about empathy by the way you treat yourself and others.  But beyond their observations, intentional lessons in compassion are worth every ounce of effort and time. Teaching your child empathy is an amazing gift to give your family and this world.  How exciting to watch them make the world a better place as they grow!

Published by

Intelligent Nest

Intelligent Nest, LLC strives to empower parents, from all backgrounds, using leading scientific and philosophical theories to help parents transform their homes into an Intelligent Nest. Through examining the bidirectional nature of the parent-child relationship, Intelligent Nest, LLC aims to equip parents with practical, research-based and non-judgmental solutions to inform their parenting decisions.

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