Empathy in children and teens:

A guide for the science-minded

© 2010 - 2014 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

Empathy in children is a hot topic.

Empathy seems to be a crucial component of social intelligence. And many people have argued 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 to nurture a sense of empathy in their kids.

And they want to know whether a lack of empathy might lead to aggressive or antisocial behavior problems.

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

Here is the table of contents. To access these fully-referenced articles, click on the links below.

Definitions and 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 this pain in a vivid, personal way.

But there are more elaborate notions of empathy. As argued by neuroscientists like Jean Decety, full-blown human empathy also requires emotional self-control and theory of mind (the ability to understand that other creatures may have thoughts and feelings that differ from one’s own).

These components may permit us to feel empathic concern, or sympathy.

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

When does empathy and sympathetic behavior first emerge?

As noted above, a mature sense of empathy requires some pretty complex skills, like the ability to grasp another person’s perspective. Children may not develop such skills until they are four or five. But there is evidence that even newborn babies are sensitive to social cues.

And 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 teaching methods.

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.

So 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 think is more “scientific” than behavioral research. (For more information about that myth, click here.)

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.




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References: Empathy in children and teens

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 grandmother and teen ©iStockphoto.com/Nancy Louie

Content last modified 1/14