Empathy in Children

How children from birth to age two learn to identify with the feelings of others.

Empathy is the ability to put yourself in another person's place; being empathetic means that you can sense and identify with what another person is feeling.

What does it mean to speak about empathy in babies? After all, infants appear not only to be entirely self-involved but also to barely know that other people exist.

It's certainly true that babies come into the world with a good amount of egocentrism, which they need in order to survive. What is less obvious is that they are also born with the equally essential capacity to attune themselves to the feelings of others.

Let's say it's the middle of the night in a nursery full of newborn babies. The room is perfectly silent until one of the tiny sleepers begins to cry. Fifteen seconds later, for no apparent reason, another baby joins in. The babies cry for several minutes and then stop as abruptly as they began. What we believe happens is that the first baby's cry triggers the second baby's. In other words, the second infant senses the distress of the first and instinctively gives a matching response. Since infants don't have the capacity to put themselves in another's place, we can't call this a truly empathetic response – but it is the first step toward empathy.

A Perfect Match

Children are first exposed to another's empathy while they are still in the womb. During that time, the mother's body meets the fetus's every need; the mother and fetus are in perfect harmony. The second experience with another's empathy comes in the first months of life. Even before the infant is aware of being hungry or sleepy or restless, a caregiver is there to provide for him.

The powerful emotional connection between infant and caregiver is built on physiological attunement. In fact, a newborn subconsciously experiences his caregiver's moods almost as if they were his own. If a seemingly happy baby is placed in the arms of an apparently sad mother, the baby's cheerful mood will noticeably fade as he "catches" her low spirits. When a mother is in a positive mood, the baby will catch those feelings, too, and perhaps smile or laugh.

The Little Physicist

When a baby is about six months old, she becomes interested in understanding why her mother is experiencing an emotion. She begins to show this interest as she approaches her first birthday and begins to develop notions about what her mother is feeling and what has caused the emotion. If the mother receives a phone call and begins to cry, the baby will observe the change in her mood. The next time the baby hears the phone ring, she may remember the incident and express worry by crying or clinging to her mother. We can speculate that the baby's conclusion was, "The telephone has made my mother sad."

The baby also develops theories about interactions between her mother and father. For example, if the little scientist sees that her mother looks happy when she and her father talk or touch, the baby senses something special going on between them and tries to determine what it is. Her newfound curiosity may lead her to conclude that her father tickles her mother to make mother laugh. Of course, we can't be certain what she thinks, but we can observe that as she enters her second year the baby becomes ever more involved and emotionally tuned in to the relationship between her parents.

The child's curiosity about emotions and their causes are endless, as, it seems, are the explanations he comes up with. But in the months following his first birthday, his theorizing becomes easier. As his brain develops, he more clearly understands categories such as male and female, and he achieves a better idea of the difference between himself and his parents. As he learns more categories, he can conceptualize more accurately.

Your Mood or Mine?

A toddler cannot feel empathy for a friend who gets hurt at the playground. She may match the friend's mood and begin to cry, but she won't feel true empathy, which demands a more highly developed cognitive facility as well as emotional identification.

But since toddlers have learned a thing or two about their own emotional states and the emotional states of others, they are less likely than they were as infants to be overwhelmed by others' feelings. This means they are in much better control of their emotional responses -- and that is quite an important accomplishment.

Dr. James M. Herzog is senior scholar in child psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and a practicing child and adult psychiatrist. Katherine Ross is a freelance book and magazine editor based in New York City.