What is Empathy in Childhood?
Empathy in childhood is the ability to understand the emotions of other people.
Empathy is often misunderstood because children struggling with empathy are not uncaring or unkind. Generally, they care greatly about people’s feelings, but they don’t understand them well.
In Developmental Psychology, research shows that empathy is complex and plays an essential role in your child’s overall social development. Further, even as adults, our empathy skills are critical for our success in careers and relationships.
The skill of empathy has two component skills, emotional awareness and emotional reciprocity.
- Emotional awareness is ‘getting it’ in understanding how people tend to feel in a specific situation. For example, if a child drops an ice-cream cone on the ground and starts to cry, an emotionally aware peer would think, “Oh, he’s sad because he dropped that.” A less emotionally aware child may say, “why are you crying?”
- Emotional reciprocity is being able to read others’ emotions and offering emotional support as needed. For example, if a peer cries over a bad grade on a test, he might say, “Oh, yeah. I understand. That was a hard test!”
Developmental Stages of Empathy
Early childhood: Early signs of empathy include recognizing simple emotions. Young children use words like sad and happy. Even at a very young age, children can notice if someone else is crying or upset. Some toddlers and infants will also cry when they see another child crying.
Elementary school children: Children with social reciprocity in elementary school offer comfort and ask questions about people’s feelings. For example, they might say, “are you okay?” if someone gets hurt. They might offer to walk an injured child to the nurse’s office.
Middle School and High School: Children get better and better at identifying and understanding a vast range of emotions as they get older. They begin helping others through trying times, listening to their stories and concerns, and providing appropriate support. Children and teenagers can express and understand complex emotional states.
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Symptoms of Issues Understanding Empathy in Children
- Misunderstanding others’ emotions: Not understanding why someone is crying
- Getting confused: Having trouble understanding when another child is angry or upset; not helping others who need it because of this confusion
- Reading it wrong: Misidentifying emotions of characters in a book
- Poor perspective taking: Noticing details in a story but not the perspective of characters
- Seeming aloof: Seeming ‘checked out’ or cold when others are upset
- Unsure how to respond: Not showing care and concern for an upset classmate; for example, failing to ask, “are you alright” or “what happened”
- Accidentally offending others: Making rude comments to peers without realizing it; for example, saying, “I don’t like your new haircut” without stopping to realize that might be hurtful
- Getting in trouble: pushing kids out of their way to get in line for recess without noticing the other children are irritated
- Playing unfair: running in and grabbing the ball at recess when it’s not their turn; refusing to let other kids play or have a turn
- Responding inappropriately to the situation: For example, if a friend cries about grandma passing away, the child says, “Well, she was really old” or “that’s the life cycle”
- Refuses to apologize: Not making amends with peers after accidentally hurting their feelings
Causes of Issues Understanding Empathy in Children
- Challenges with perspective-taking: when a child is struggling to be aware of and understand the different emotions, thoughts, and ideas of another person
- Abuse, trauma, and developmental trauma: when a child is experiencing trauma, they may be in survival mode and not have the internal resources to empathize and understand the perspectives or feelings of another. Abuse can cause a child to struggle with interpersonal relationships due to a lack of positive modeling and safety
- Challenges with attachment to primary caregiver: when a child has unmet childhood needs, it could result in the child struggling to understand their needs or the needs of others
Types of Empathy in Children
Empathy is the ability to understand and care about other people’s emotions.
“There is the cognitive concept of empathy: does the child ‘get’ how people feel? There’s an emotional concept of empathy: does the child relate or sympathize with how the person feels? And finally, there is the display of empathy through actions: does the child respond in a caring way to others’ feelings?”
Empathy requires a lot of essential skills to work together. Challenges may come in the form of the ‘empathetic mind’ or the ‘empathetic heart’ or ‘empathetic actions’ as described below.
‘Empathetic Mind’: Empathy requires the ability to truly understand others’ feelings and offer support to them. Some children understand how other children feel, but they aren’t sure why they feel that way. For example, they may see a child yelling ‘stop it!’ or ‘shut up’ at a bullying child on the playground. Although the child may understand feelings, they may not be sure of the context or the complex social situation that causes these feelings.
‘Empathetic Heart’: Even a caring child may not quite know how to show that care and compassion with their actions. For example, they may see a crying child at the lunch table and want to help but not know what to do next.
‘Empathetic Actions’: A further reason for empathy challenges is that the child may understand the feeling and want to help but not know how to show their care and concern. For example, if a child with empathy notices a child all alone on the playground, he may go over and invite him to play with the group. You will want your child to learn these skills as empathy is involved in making strong connections with others.
“Challenges with empathy are NOT to be seen as a sign that your child is troubled, uncaring, or unkind. It may simply be that these emotional understanding skills feel complicated and unclear to your child.”
Parents, take heart! We can teach these essential social skills to kids who are not naturally empathetic. We can all improve in what Social Psychologists call our Emotional Intelligence or our EQ.
Dan Goleman defined emotional Intelligence, and that body of knowledge continues to guide career development and career coaching around the globe. Even a keenly emotionally aware person can grow in terms of relating to others more thoughtfully and responding with more care and empathy to peers, co-workers, and family members. If your child needs to work on empathy, please know that these essential skills evolve throughout life and are worthy of all of our time, as they contribute significantly to relationship and career success.
What to Do About Helping Your Child With Empathy
- Study the story: To help your child with empathy, parents and family members can start with storybook characters and movie actors. You can read stories with a younger child and discuss the plot afterward, focusing on the story’s emotions. You can watch favorite movies with your child and comment as you notice situations that evoke specific emotions.
- Watch TV with no sound: Try watching a T.V. show with no volume and see if your child can guess how the characters are feeling.
- Explain your feelings: Children can learn empathy by hearing about feelings and how to handle them. They can grow in their emotional intelligence as they hear about others’ emotional needs. Comment on your feelings and why you feel that way. “Mom is really stressed out because of this traffic. I’m going to take a deep breath and try to find a fun song for us to listen to on the radio.”
- Label your child’s feelings: It can be helpful to name and label your child’s feelings and find ways to help them understand what may have triggered that emotion. For example, “You look really excited, and you have a lot of energy. I wonder if you are excited about Emma’s birthday.”
Research shows that labeling strong emotions can help to bring down the intensity. Famous psychologists Dan Siegel and Tina Payne-Bryson  call this technique, “name it to tame it.” When a parent calls out a feeling like it is, the child tends to feel heard and validated, which often calms them down.
Using the “Name It To Tame It” Strategy
- “You really wanted to ride on that carnival ride, but you didn’t get a turn.” “You feel mad.”
- “You wanted to get that part in the play, but you didn’t get it.” “You feel disappointed.”
- “You were hoping to join your friends in that game, but they didn’t invite you.” You feel left out and lonely.”
- “You played really hard today, and your cheeks are all red.” “You feel exhausted.”
When to Seek Help for Empathy Skills
It is okay that your child’s empathy skills will develop over time. No child understands all of the complexities of social relationships in the toddler days or preschool years. Your child’s abilities and actions will continue to become more empathetic as emotional skills evolve throughout childhood.
Good examples of normal development in empathy
- You will want to see your kindergarten child play with peers on the playground.
- You will be looking for your third grader to have a best friend.
- Your middle schooler should participate socially and understand that some friends are more trustworthy than others.
- You will want your teenager to tell you about the personality differences among their friends and provide an empathetic response to a friend in need.
- You can expect that your high school kid would know how certain friends will act differently than others in situations.
If the above examples are not happening, your child may genuinely be confused about their peers and how to relate to them. The time to be concerned is when a child seems disconnected emotionally. You may notice that your child is not getting invited to birthday parties or included in playdates. You may find that your child comes home angry a lot over disagreements at school. The teacher may point out that your child doesn’t work well in groups.
Examples of times to be concerned about empathy
- You ask your child how they feel and constantly get an “I don’t know” response.
- Your child may say he “never thinks about feelings.”
- If your child gets very upset and throws a fit, you may ask, “what’s the matter” and get a puzzled look.
- You ask your child why the kids were arguing and get a highly intellectual or peculiar answer like, “It was quite the debacle” instead of a typical response like, “I was so mad that I had to scream!”
If your child really struggles with the empathy needed to form friendships, it may be worthwhile to consider an evaluation with a psychologist. It is possible that your child needs support or that there is a developmental issue at the root of these challenges.
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Further Resources on Empathy
- Psychologist or Neuropsychologist: to provide an evaluation for diagnostic clarification
- Psychotherapist: to provide CBT interventions have been shown to be effective in helping children with ASD make gains in recognizing and understanding emotions, improving perspective-taking and social skills and managing co-occurring depression and anxiety
- School Counselor: many school counselors help kids through social skills instruction like SecondStep (a community building and bullying prevention program). They also may have ‘lunch bunch’ groups where kids can come and practice socializing with peers
Related Conditions to Empathy Issues
- Pragmatic Language: children with limited empathy are likely to struggle with social communication and pragmatic skills
- Attention: some children struggle with empathy because they are inattentive to other’s feelings, comments, and reactions [3, 4]
- Restricted Patterns of Behavior or Interests: some children lack empathy because they are preoccupied with their interests and ideas 
- Anxiety: some children lack empathy because they avoid social interaction due to their anxiety. Lack of social practice may lead to poor perspective-taking, which is a prerequisite for empathy
- Depression: many depressed individuals are internally focused and preoccupied, which may lead to poor perspective taking or empathy
References on Empathy Skills and Emotional Intelligence
 Goleman, Daniel (2005). Emotional Intelligence: Why it can be more important than IQ.
 Siegel, Daniel J. & Bryson, Tina Payne (2012). The whole brain child: 12 revolutionary strategies to nurture your child’s developing mind.
 Giler, Janet Z. (2000). Socially ADDept: A manual for parents of children with ADHD and or learning disabilities.
 Giler, Janet Z. (2011). Socially ADDept: Teaching social skills to children with ADHD, LD, and Asperger’s.
 Baker, Jed. (Retrieved 2017). Social skills books and resources for ASD.
Resources on Empathy in Childhood
Kroncke, Willard, & Huckabee (2016). Assessment of autism spectrum disorder: Critical issues in clinical forensic and school settings. Springer, San Francisco.
Ozonoff, Sally & Dawson, Geraldine & McPartland, James C. (2014). A parent’s guide to high functioning autism spectrum disorder: How to meet the challenges and help your child thrive.
Berns, Roberta M. (2010). Child, family, school, community: Socialization and support.
Trawick-Smith, Jeffrey (2013). Early childhood development: A multicultural perspective.
Mendler, Allen (2013). Teaching your students how to have a conversation.
UCLA PEERS Clinic https://www.semel.ucla.edu/peers
McKinnon, Kelly & Krempa, Janis L. (2002). Social Skills Solutions: A Hands-On Manual for Teaching Social Skills to Children with Autism.
Children’s Books on Social Skills, Including Empathy
Brown, Laurie Krasny & Brown, Marc (2001). How to be a friend: A guide to making friends and keeping them (Dino life guides for families).
Cook, Julia (2012). Making Friends is an art!: A children’s book on making friends (Happy to be, you and me).
Meiners, Cheri. (2003). Understand and care.
Gordon, Jon (2012). The energy bus for kids: A story about staying positive and overcoming challenges.
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