Empathy Milestones: How Your Child Becomes More Empathetic

Part 2: How does empathy develop? What are the steps to becoming empathetic?

Posted Nov 01, 2019

Glenn Beltz/Flickr
Source: Glenn Beltz/Flickr

Empathy is a complex and nuanced attribute, and it develops one step at a time, just like all other complex skills, from playing basketball to speaking a second language. It builds on several other of your child’s achievements and skills, including:

  1. Parental attachment. Your child needs to experience a secure, strong, loving relationship with you in order to develop empathy in all its complexity.
  2. Social referencing. By six months old (and sometimes sooner), your baby is actively paying attention to your reactions to other people, and gauging their own reactions accordingly. If your baby sees that you feel comfortable with someone, chances are good they’ll respond well to that person. If you’re apprehensive about a person or a new situation, your baby may show signs of fear or agitation.
  3. Theory of mind. As your child approaches their second birthday, they begin to realize that others have their own thoughts and feelings, and that these are sometimes different than theirs.
  4. Recognition of self as a separate person. At about the same time (between eighteen months and two years old), your toddler will recognize themself in a mirror, signaling that they understand themself as a person separate from you and others.
  5. Awareness of the connection between desires and emotions. By about three, your child can recognize the common desires and feelings that most people experience, and see how they are connected—with the disappointment of one’s wishes leading to sadness or anger, for example, or happiness resulting from a pleasant surprise.
  6. Ability to take another’s perspective. By the age of four, your child can learn to see a situation from another person's perspective. They can look at a particular situation (such as watching a classmate saying goodbye to a parent) and imagine how they—and therefore their friend—might feel in that moment.
  7. Imagination of what another person needs. During your child’s fifth year, they can learn to imagine what response might be appropriate and comforting, such as offering a sad friend a favorite toy or invitation to a game.
  8. Emotional sharing. Most emotionally healthy five-year-olds like to talk about their feelings, in some depth. This can be used to build a bridge to their emerging understanding of the feelings of others.
  9. Cue-reading. Your five- and six-year-old is ready to learn how to read social cues about other people’s thoughts and feelings, through paying close attention not only to their words, but also their actions, gestures, and facial expressions.
  10. Seeing oneself as a member of a community. Starting at about five, your child is ready to see themself as a valuable member of a group. By modeling and encouraging empathy, you are helping them learn how to become a compassionate member of a caring community at home, at school, and elsewhere.

Empathy isn’t steady or predictable in its development across time, or even within individuals. A young child may show deep compassion for other children, being the first to see when a classmate is emotionally needy, for example, and soothing them effectively—but then going home and laughing when a young sibling has a bad fall. Knowing how to handle big feelings and reliably translating observations of others into empathetic behaviour requires maturity and practice, practice, practice.

In Part 1 of this series, "Empathy: Where Kindness, Compassion, and Happiness Begin," I discuss the complexities of empathy, including distinguishing among cognitive, emotional, and compassionate forms of empathy. 

In Part 3 of the series, "What Can You Do to Nurture Your Child’s Empathy?" I address the practical implications for parents: What can you do to support your child in becoming more empathetic?

See Also

How Children Develop Empathy,” by Erin Walsh and David Walsh