When do children develop empathy?

One of the questions I hear a lot from parents is about the development of empathy. We strive to raise compassionate human beings, and we want to know what we can expect at different stages. Many of us are quite eager to encourage our children to consider how other people feel. It’s what we remember from our own childhoods, but does it even work? We try it in toddlerhood, we try it in preschool, we try it in elementary school. All with mixed results. At some point, we might hear from the experts that children don’t develop empathy until they are at least five. Is that true? And if it is, why even bother teaching young kids about empathy?

The answer to this question lies in how you define empathy.

Merriam-Webster defines empathy as “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.” https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/empathy

What really stands out to me when I read this definition is that empathy is an intuitive skill. If we stick with Merriam-Webster, even infants are capable of empathy. Many are able to pick up on the emotions of their caregivers, even before they have developed language skills. When we say that someone is empathic, we’re talking about their ability to sense and even feel others’ emotions.

What’s missing from this definition?

But this isn’t exactly what we’re talking about when we talk about the age at which children develop empathy. When we talk about the development of empathy, usually we’re talking about prediction. We want to know when our kids will be able to anticipate how someone else will feel. When can we expect our children to filter their thoughts actions in accordance with other people’s feelings? How old does a child need to be before they can put someone else’s feelings before their own desires?

Honestly, it’s going to look a little different for each child. The good news is you don’t have to sit around and wait. The ability to consider another’s point of view can be fostered and supported. Articulating our own emotions and helping our children identify their own emotions goes a long way. You can also support the development of empathy when you read to your child. Take time to examine the facial expressions of different characters and think out loud about how they might be feeling. Both of these practices help your child develop emotional intelligence, which is the heart of empathy

Want more ideas? Check out this post I wrote about how we can support our children’s development of empathy.

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I truly believe that the way we talk to our children matters. It informs their self-image, their self-talk, and can even support their development of emotional intelligence and empathy. That’s why I put together a free cheat sheet to help parents upgrade the way they communicate with their children. If you enjoyed this post, you’ll love this cheat sheet. Just sign up for my email list below to claim yours.

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