Empathy in Children Aged Two to Six

How children from ages two to six learn to identify with the feelings of others.

Empathy is the ability to put yourself into another person's shoes and to experience something as that other person would. The capacity to truly understand what is going on in somebody else's heart and mind doesn't develop until a child is six or seven, but youngsters do have the emotional – rather than cognitive -- ability to pick up on another child's feelings and match them with their own. If you watch a group of two- or three-year-olds play together, you may notice that if one child acts out by hitting a playmate, for example, another child may begin to act out, too. It is almost as if the second child were saying, "I know you are feeling angry, and I've decided that I'll feel the same way you do."

Our natural capacity for empathy needs active encouragement from parents and caregivers so that it continues to develop. Of course, no well-meaning parent would discourage his child from expressing empathy. But parents have the difficult job of inculcating in their children the seemingly contradictory notions of safety and empathy. Children need to learn both the importance of being wary of other people and of being aware of other people's feelings.

Sometimes parents tend to pay less attention to empathy than to other types of behavior. A child's empathetic behavior can be negatively affected when a parent expresses displeasure over bad behavior (like hitting a younger sibling) rather than praising him for good behavior (like sharing a favorite toy).

The Empathy Gap

Keep in mind that by age two or three, children can usually empathize with feelings of happiness, sadness, and anger because they experience these emotions intensely themselves. Preschoolers know just how it feels to be happy, sad, and angry, and more importantly, they know the names for these emotions. So it isn't uncommon to see children act kindly toward each other in some familiar situations. Let's say two three-year-olds are drawing. One child's red crayon breaks and she bursts into tears of anger. The other sees what has happened, empathizes with the anger, and offers her his crayon. The first child quickly accepts and both children resume their coloring.

What's a good strategy for a parent observing this interaction? You can reinforce a child's helpful behavior by saying something like this: "I noticed how you offered your crayon to your friend. It must have made you feel good to help her. It made me feel good to watch you."

When children have to confront complicated feelings that they can't label, such as frustration or embarrassment, their empathy falters. This is true for four- and five-year-olds as well as two- and three-year-olds.

Perhaps a four-year-old wets himself at preschool, and the other children laugh instead of showing concern for their playmate's distress. What accounts for the empathy gap? The children can't understand what their friend is feeling—not because they have never felt the emotion but because they have not yet identified and labeled it.

An Emotional Repertoire

Parents can help a child develop his emotional repertoire by naming emotions for him. In doing so, they help his cognitive development by providing words for experiences he will encounter again. At the same time, they are helping him increase his range of understanding of human feelings.

Parents can also encourage their child to be empathetic by being straightforward about their own feelings. A preschool child who sees her mother or father experiencing a powerful emotion will wonder what is going on and why. By age four or five, she will be asking questions or expressing concern. When she does, respond honestly. You might say something like, "I'm crying because your grandmother is sick. Even though I am unhappy, it makes me feel better to know that you are concerned."

What you are telling your child is that empathy has meaning and value. When a loved one is in distress, empathy is sometimes the only thing we can offer. And whenever we do so, we express one of our most noble human qualities.

Consultant Dr. Charles Flatter is a professor of human development at the University of Maryland at College Park Institute for Child Study. Katherine Ross is a freelance book and magazine editor based in New York City.