When do children develop empathy – I mean true empathy? I have always considered empathy quite a complex emotion. According to Psych Central, to empathise with someone is to understand what another is feeling or, more properly, to understand what you would feel like if you were in their situation.
Considering the feelings of others and showing them support through words or actions is a concept that even adults sometimes struggle with. Often our life experiences help to strengthen our empathetic nature, particularly experiences of hardship. Empathy in children is therefore not something I have really paid too much mind to, confident that this, like many of my children’s blossoming traits, will develop over time.
Toddlers developmentally see the world through self-centered eyes. Generally their needs, wants and desires are forefront and whether this is to the detriment of others or what those around them are feeling is generally not given too much thought. But it could be argued that displays of empathy can be seen even from birth. For example, when an infant cries when he hears the other infants in the nursery cry.
As our children grew from infancy we began to see them offer empathetic hugs when they thought we were upset from as early as 12 months of age. Offers to share their food also became common at this age with a one-for-you-one-for-me type offering. These empathetic gestures, however, seemed to be just that – gestures – for in the very next breath following such an offering to a sibling, they could send them flying to the ground in frustration because their offering wasn’t accepted in the right way.
Having been in this tumultuous-type environment for a number of years now, I have recently been pondering when children naturally come out of their own egocentric bubbles and whether parenting can perhaps play a role in helping them truly begin to feel and understand the hurts, pains and emotions of others.
My eldest daughter is three and a half. She has an intense nature through which she is not afraid to lay her feelings bare for everyone to see. It has always, therefore, been relatively easy to pick her emotions. When she is happy, she is joyous, when she is sad she is devastated and when she is angry – well, the whole neighbourhood knows about it. I have grown to love and admire this about her.
What at first frightened me as I let my own feelings of discomfort surrounding such displays of emotion dictate my responses, urging her to calm down, cheer up and keep her emotions in check, now fills me with pride as I see my daughter’s sense of self and exuberant expression grow with confidence. Learning of and understanding more about Magda Gerber’s RIE philosophies through Janet Lansbury’s blog, helped me to change my perspective on my children’s emotions.
I strongly believe that my learning to empathise with her feelings and responding to her with compassion and understanding is now helping her to do the same for others. When I hear her cry over something that I don’t personally think is worthy of crying over, I am sure that I do not convey this to her. I have learned that modelling empathy involves me viewing her hardships from her point of view – seeing the genuine distress she feels and showing her I understand. When she becomes distraught because she is given her dinner in a green bowl and not a red bowl, it is not for me to judge whether this is worthy of such distress but I can show her I understand her tears and support her through the strong feelings that she displays.
Modelling is a powerful tool for children beginning to learn the true meaning of empathy and I think it is certainly benefiting our children. I also feel that naming the emotions in the acknowledgement of feelings has contributed to the understanding my children are developing of these emotions.
My children hear the words sad, upset, angry, frustrated, excited, worried etc just about everyday. They are confident to express these feelings to us and I believe that hearing them calmly verbalised to them whilst sportscasting throughout emotional events normalises the feelings and gives the children something verbally tangible to reflect on. This in turn helps them to understand and recognise them when they see the same emotions in others.
This week I have seen a new development in my three and a half year old’s empathetic journey. It is interesting to me that as this part of her develops, she is actually feeling the pain and distress of others as intensely as she experiences her own emotions.
So, last night I was reading/singing from a book “Puff, the Magic Dragon”. For those who are not familiar with the storyline, it follows the adventures of Little Jackie Paper and his friend, Puff, a large magical dragon. They go on grand adventures together but then one day, Jackie Paper seemingly grows up and leaves the dragon. The dragon becomes sad and depressed and retreats alone into his cave.
We have read this book many, many times together in the past. It was a song I grew up listening to and only as an adult, reading it to my children, did I realise how solemn the lyrics are. Lucy, knows it well though and was happily singing along with me last night as we looked at the pictures and turned the pages together. When we got to the last verse when Jackie Paper leaves his dragon friend, Lucy began to sob uncontrollably. Between sobs she managed to blurt out “That made me sad!” before continuing howling and expressing utter devastation for the dragon.
I held her and acknowledged. We discussed her emotions and I told her she was feeling sad because the dragon felt sad and that it was normal to feel this way. I let her know she was feeling empathy and used that word, explaining that it meant she understood why the dragon was sad and felt for him. She listened to me intently and gradually her sobs softened. We finished the story and she saw that Jackie Paper’s daughter befriended the dragon and she began to cheer up.
This display of empathy came a little from left field but it demonstrated that the gentle path we are taking in parenting our children is working. I am glad I was able to be mindful and present with her as she begins to make sense of these empathetic feelings and starts finding ways to cope with the emotions it invokes in her.
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You may also enjoy reading:
Creating Bonds: Accepting a Child’s Emotions
Rasing Empathy ~ Mama S. (Respectful Parent)
Empathetic Parenting ~ Tamara Parnay (The Natural Child Project)
Lovely post 🙂 I would describe my 4yr old daughter as having an intense nature also and recently she has started discussing her emotions with us more often. I regularly hear “I’m really cross with you mummy!” At least I know how she’s feeling 🙂
It’s so great when they can start to verbalise their feelings. it definitely takes the guess work out of it 🙂 Thanks for commenting!
This is so important! thank you for a great reminder!
Thank you , Anastasia!
Great article, thank you. I just have a quick question. I’m trying to empathize with my 3.5 yo so I am always looking for guidance about how to handle situations. In the case of your example about the green and red bowls, if she wanted the red bowl, do you empathize and comply with her request or is it enough to empathize but not comply with her request? Thanks!
I love that question, Steph. I wondered the same thing! I am a preschool teacher and often try to advise parents on dealing with some of these situations, at home and at school. While I absolutely agree with acknowledging and supporting the strong feelings, my instinct tells me that giving in to the red bowl would be reinforcing behaviour that we don’t really want to see, regardless of whether we empathise with it or not. Thoughts?
Yes, liz, it is often best let the child express the feelings without giving in to such requests. Every situation is different but usually when children are quibbling over colours of bowls, there is an underlying emotion that is using the bowls as a vehicle to get out. They want to have a reason to have a good cry in other words. If my children request a different coloured bowl before I have served their meal, I am happy to comply. Being amenable is a good trait and one I am happy to model also.
Hi Steph. It all depends on the situation but normally I would empathise but not comply. If it is as simple as changing a bowl colour because I haven’t dished up yet I am normally pretty flexible but if they were upset because they couldn’t have a cookie before dinner I would empathise and hold the limit.
Children need us to set confident limits. It would give them an uncomfortable amount a power if we always complied with their requests just because they became upset.
I love all your posts – you ponder! It’s so important as a parent I think. The other night my daughter was crying after a nightmare (I think), and I found myself saying “it’s ok, it’s alright, calm down”. But then I thought about some of your posts, and instead I changed my words to “you’re upset, it’s ok if you want to cry, you can cry it out if you want to”. My daughter immediately started sobbing louder than before and really let herself feel the emotion. Then she turned over and fell straight back to sleep.
Aww, Danya, that is such a lovely story. There really is something so therapeutic in allowing our kids to get their emotion out rather than bottling it up, isn’t there?
Thank you so much for taking the time to let me know!
I really enjoyed reading this honey. You’re such a lovely writer. I always feel like I’ve taken away something that will make be a better parent from your posts. xx
Thank you so much, Penny! I’m so happy to hear that you find my posts helpful. Thank you for letting me know!
This is simply spot on! Great insightul post and so glad you shared! My favorite sentence in this article was, “Often our life experiences help to strengthen our empathetic nature, particularly experiences of hardship.” It was quite the turning point in my mind. When she has had what I thought were petty but powerful bursts of emotion, I thought I was, in essence, taming her emotions, when in reality I wasn’t helping her at all to develop empathy. It clearly explains why it has seemed to be escalating to some degree rather than helping. Once again-spot on!!! Thank you!!!
Thank you, Sherra! I’m so glad you were able to have a light bulb moment and I hope it will continue to spur you on to be the peaceful parenting you are striving to be.