Empathy in children and teens: A guide for the science-minded

Empathy in children is a hot research topic, and a subject of great practical importance for families and communities. Empathy seems to be a crucial component of social intelligence, and many scholars argue that empathy is the basis for morality.

So people want to know when and how children become aware of the feelings of others. They want to know how a deficit in empathy might lead to aggressive or antisocial behavior problems. And they want to know what practical measures we can take to foster empathy in children as they develop.

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In these pages, I review what studies say about the development of empathy in children and teens. Here is an overview.

To access these fully-referenced articles, click on the links below.

Definitions and the neurological evidence

What is empathy? Different researchers adopt different definitions.

Most definitions of empathy include the idea of “tuning in’ to the feelings of another creature. You watch someone else. You observe his situation. You recognize what he must be feeling and experience similar feelings yourself.

This is empathy at its most basic: The ability to feel another creature’s pain—or at least imagine his pain in a vivid, personal way. It’s not the same as what the victim is feeling. When you see him break his ankle, you know it’s his ankle and not yours. And your “second hand” feelings don’t, by themselves, make you care about his welfare, or take steps to help. But they’re a powerful foundation for sympathy, kindness, altruism, and prosocial (“helping”) behavior.

Other, more elaborate notions of empathy include perspective-taking or theory of mind — the ability to imagine or reconstruct the thoughts and feelings of another individual. They might also include an advanced capacity for self-awareness and self control.

But as Jean Decety and his colleagues argue (2016), the more basic definition of empathy is very useful for understanding the origins of empathy. Many nonhuman animals thought to lack theory of mind show clear signs of basic empathy — and sympathy too.  And human babies — even newborns — have empathic abilities. Basic empathy can be detected in the brain.

To read more, see my review of the neurological evidence for empathy in children and nonhuman animals.

When do more advanced empathic behaviors — like sympathetic concern — first emerge?

As noted above, some notions of empathy require pretty complex skills, like perspective-taking. Children may not develop such skills until they are four or five. But that doesn’t make them sociopaths!

Newborn babies become distressed when they hear other infants cry, and they pay close attention to our emotional signals.

By 12 months, some babies attempt to soothe people who seem distressed or upset. Moreover toddlers show a remarkable degree of sophistication when they try to help us (Martin and Olson 2013).

Read more about these topics in these Parenting Science articles:

Can we teach empathy?

Lots of people want to know. Unfortunately, few studies have been designed to address this question. But I think there is a lot of evidence to suggest that parents can help—or hurt.

To read about this research, see my article, “The case for teaching empathy.”

In addition, check out “Mind-minded parenting,” how mental state talk helps kids learn about beliefs, feelings, and the perspectives of other people.

What practical things can a parent (or teacher) do?

Check out my research-based tips for fostering empathy in children. In addition, see these Parenting Science articles about

What about the media?

There is evidence that video games influence our willingness to help others.

For instance, experiments suggest that video game violence makes people less responsive—and less likely to help—when they witness other people in trouble.

Likewise, “prosocial” video games—which reward players for helping others—seem to promote acts of kindness in the real world.

Myths about empathy: The callous teenager

Are teenagers biologically inclined to callousness?

I don’t doubt that people can learn more about human nature—and become better “mind-readers”—as they gain more life experience. And adolescents have special characteristics. They may be more self-conscious. They may be particularly anxious about finding their place in the social order. Their hormonal states may make them more emotional and willing to take risks.

But the popular claim is that teenagers are especially lacking in empathy. Is there any compelling evidence for this?

No. But that hasn’t stopped the media from making grossly inaccurate claims. In one case, popular news headlines announced that “Teen Brains Lack Empathy.” In reality, the study in question didn’t show that teenagers feel or behave any differently than adults do. And it wasn’t even about empathy!

That bogus story got a lot of attention. It cited brain research, which many people erroneously regard as more “scientific” than behavioral research.

More importantly, perhaps, the story seemed to confirm what many people already believed.

But the notion of the callous adolescent is hardly universal. It’s a modern Western folk theory. And it’s not even clear that it applies in the West. In many places, cultural norms discourage people from displaying empathy. “Growing up” means “getting tough.” So it seems reasonable to ask if some people become less sensitive as they get older. Not more.

What about bullying and empathy in children?

There are links between bullying and empathy. Kids who bully others have fared more poorly on tests of empathic reactivity. They are also more likely to endorse beliefs like “some kids deserve to be treated like animals.”

And for some kids, bullying may be a sign that they are developing antisocial personality disorder –a psychiatric condition characterized by a failure to empathize.

Does this mean that all bullies experience less empathy?

Not necessarily. Some bullies are actually very good at “reading” other people. Indeed, their social skills make them particularly effective at manipulating and humiliating others.

References: Empathy in children and teens

Decety J, Bartal IB, Uzefovsky F, and Knafo-Noam A. 2016. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 371(1686).

Empathy as a driver of prosocial behaviour: highly conserved neurobehavioural mechanisms across species

Martin A, Olson KR. 2012. When kids know better: paternalistic helping in 3-year-old children. Dev Psychol. 49(11):2071-81.

For more citations, follow the links to my fully-referenced articles.

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