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Paving the Road to Empathy

mom-and-babyOf course, demonstrations of empathy depend not only on individual characteristics but also on situations.  Still, here are some age-based guidelines regarding the typical process and emergence of empathy.  Between 18 and 24 months children often begin to look on with concern when someone is hurt or upset.  By 24 to 30 months children may attempt to use an action to comfort others who are upset (e.g., hugging, bringing a favorite toy).  Three- and four-year-old children often show concern, try to help, and freely give toys or attention to help when another child is hurt or upset.  Between four- and five years, children begin to apologize without a reminder, and they also demonstrate pre-emptive concern that peers do not get hurt in play.

Here is a typical developmental sequence that you may use/expect in helping your child build a sense of empathy and concern for others:

  • Verbalizing (“I’m sorry”)
  • Behaving (hugging or giving something to another person who is hurt or upset)
  • Intellectual Understanding (knowing “right” and “wrong” and seeing how another person who is hurt or upset was “wronged”)
  • Sympathy (feeling “sorry for” the person who is hurt or upset)
  • Empathy (vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another person who is hurt or upset)
  • Proactive Good Deeds (performing acts of kindness for another person – with or without the person needing your help)
  • “Philanthropy” (giving work, money, or property to other people who you do not necessarily know)