Empathy in Children Aged Two to Six
How children from ages two to six learn to identify with the
feelings of others.
By Charles Flatter, Ed.D.and Katherine Ross
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-
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
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.
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