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The Emergence of Empathy in the Preschooler

Empathy is an emotional response that arises in a person as a result of recognizing another's emotional state or condition. Colloquially we refer to `sympathy pains' that are very similar or identical to what the other individual is perceived to experience. This ability to understand the other's internal state is characterized by a strong emotional response [Lennon and Eisenberg, 1984].

Empathy builds on self-awareness; the more open we are to our own emotions, the more skilled we will be in reading feelings. Alexithymics who have no idea what they feel themselves, are at a complete loss when it comes to knowing what anyone else around them is feeling. They are emotionally tone-deaf. The emotional notes and chords that weave through people's words and actions- the telling tone of voice or shift in posture the eloquent silence or telltale tremble-go by unnoted. Confused about their own feelings, alexithymics are equally bewildered when other people express their feelings to them. It is a tragic failing in what it means to be human. For all rapport, the root of caring, stems from emotional attunement, from the capacity for empathy.

That capacity- the ability to know how another feels- comes into play in a vast array of life arenas, from sales and management to romance and parenting, to compassion and political action. The absence of empathy is also telling. Its lack is seen in criminal psychopaths, rapists, and child molesters [Goleman, 1995].

Comforting behaviors seem to increase in frequency from the age of 2 to the age of 3. It is not clear at what point the child makes the transition from mimicry to internalization. Even young children often seem to be motivated by an understanding of - and perhaps an emotional response to - another's situation and needs [Eisenberg, 1992].

Children's reactions to another person's distress change with age. Until the end of the first year, they usually remain bystanders. They often become upset themselves, but they do not make any active attempt to comfort somebody else in distress... In their second year young children begin to deliberately try to alleviate distress in another person; they comfort their parents and siblings at home and later they comfort other children in the nursery school, particularly if they are hurt... Elder children are often observed comforting younger ones. And in turn the younger children often turn to the older ones for comfort.

Reactions to another person's distress vary enormously from child to child... By the age of 2 years, children responded on one third of those occasions in which they saw someone in distress. They did not respond differently if they had or had not caused the distress. Some children responded to more than half the incidents, whereas others responded to only one in twenty.

There is also the matter of expectation of a parent on an older child that the child will be sympathetic to a younger sibling. Most children will be told at some point that it is good to help, comfort or share with other children and bad to upset them. They are quite sensitive to issues of right and wrong, whatever their behavior might lead one to expect. Young children focus not on the adult reactions but on the ways that the victims themselves react for a clear indication that moral transgressions are more serious than violations of convention. Children start to categorize an action as morally wrong, rather than conventionally wrong if they learn that it causes distress. A child who has spent a lot of time with other children will have been exposed to a good deal of information about what does and does not constitute a serious breach. The child's moral intuitions are inextricably bound up with an understand of emotion. A child who does not understand that someone is distressed nor what causes it will scarcely conclude that the action that caused it is wrong [Eisenberg, 1992].

The notion of who caused the distress is an important component of the Affective Tigger project. Some children were reluctant to `make Tigger sad' even when their accompanying adult encouraged it. Other children found the power of `hurting' the Affective Tigger to be quite intoxicating. In preschools it has been demonstrated that there is an increase in teasing with age [Harris, 1989]. This suggests that the preschool children are both developing a sense of `other' and an awareness of emotions. The increase in teasing might be attributable to the child's way of exploring her new found power. The Affective Tigger becomes a safe space to practice on. With repeated play, hopefully, she can learn that there are similar consequences with the Affective Tigger as with her other playmates. The benefit is that the Affective Tigger can withstand numerous repetitions, whereas a real playmate may never come to play again.

Again we see the confounding source is imitation. The child may be `going through the motions' of comforting without understanding what it is she is doing. Piaget resolved this imitation dilemma by resorting to the child's ability to produce a coherent verbal account of the mental processes underlying her behavior. This limited his findings to the operational stage (approximately seven or eight years old). Again there is a danger that the young child's true ability is seriously under-estimated. As expected, many studies have found the emergence of empathy much earlier [Lennon and Eisenberg, 1984]. The Affective Tigger project relies on empathy as a marker of emotional development. In conjunction with the demonstration of emotional restraint, a behavior that can not be `faked', they provide an overall assessment of the child's level of emotional development.

next up previous contents
Next: The Role of Play Up: Child Development Previous: Acquisition of a Sense

Dana L Kirsch
Tue May 25 08:59:22 EDT 1999