Empathy in children and teens:
A guide for the science-minded
© 2010 - 2016 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved
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.
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.
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 my articles
as well as my blog posts,
Can we teach empathy?
Lots of people want to know. Unfortunately, few studies have been
designed to address this question. For instance, there haven’t yet been
any controlled experiments that compare the effects of different
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 these research-based tips for fostering empathy in children. In addition, see these related 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?
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.
Image of girl and terrier: State Library of New South Wales
Image of father and toddlers by Jorge Hernández Valiñani / wikimedia commons
Image of grandmother and teen ©iStockphoto.com/Nancy Louie
Content last modified 1/16