Children and empathy
Understanding empathy and how children develop it.
Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. As it relates to parenting, empathy is the ability of parents to perceive the emotions, needs and wants of their children and to be able to respond in a nurturing way. Babies are unable to say how they are feeling so it is important for their caregivers to be emphatic to their children’s cues. As caregivers show empathy toward children, they grow up to learn empathy and in turn, learn to become sensitive to the needs and feelings of others.
Some believe that empathy begins to develop when children are very young. Often times when a 1-year-old observes another child crying, they will begin to cry as well. This imitation can indicate that they are experiencing the same feeling. Around the age of two, children become more aware that they are separate from others and will try to soothe a crying child. They are realizing that someone else’s feelings are different from their own. Late in childhood, around age 6 or 7, children can understand distress in others beyond the immediate situation. They can understand another child’s emotion by them telling them about an experience.
Empathy is a skill that develops with teaching, modeling and practice. Michigan State University Extension says that there are several ways to help children develop a sense of empathy:
- Use nurturing discipline techniques
- Teach children to express their feelings
- Identify and honor your children’s feelings
- Model empathy
- Teach children to care for things like pets and plants
- Teach children to share
Most of all, children learn empathy when they are treated with empathy. For more information, read How Children Develop Empathy.