Birth to 2

Rudimentary signs of empathy are apparent at birth. Newborns cry when they hear another infant crying, and very young babies imitate and react to the facial expressions of others. Though these actions are reflexive, not conscious, they show that the brain is primed to respond to other humans. Parents are essential to this process. Every time a parent responds lovingly to an infant's needs, feeding or soothing him, new neural connections are made, which associate good feelings with parental care and form the basis of the ability to love and empathize.

A toddler's first demonstrations of reciprocity are often directed at the parent. A 12-month-old may try to feed her mother, but may simply stare at a child who is crying. By 2, children often try to comfort kids as well, for example, by offering their doll to an upset child. What they don't yet realize is that people's needs differ and that the pacifier from which they derive comfort, for example, may not do the trick for someone else.

One of their first words is "Mine!" because ownership enhances their newfound sense of self. Although the idea of sharing can be introduced, kids are unable to act on it for another year or so.

What Can Parents Do?

  • Praise your child when he shows concern for or comforts another child.
  • Play a game called "feeling faces," in which you make a face, point at yourself, and say, "happy," "sad," "angry," or "surprised." Draw simple pictures with these expressions as well.
  • What's the Goal?

    To help your child become conscious of his own feelings and recognize emotions in others.

    3 to 4

    Children this age are spending more time with other kids - in day care, at preschool, or on the playground. Through these interactions, they learn how actions affect others--for example, that sharing can make others happy, while refusing to take turns can make them angry or sad. They also start to recognize individual differences in the need for comfort. Whereas a toddler might have pulled his mother over to comfort a crying child in the playground, a preschooler realizes that the boy wants his own mommy. Kids often use an egocentric version of the Golden Rule ("He hit me first!") to justify aggression.

    What Can Parents Do?

  • Help your child think of others: "Look at Tanya's face. See how sad she is? Can you think of anything that would help her feel better?"
  • Expand your child's "feelings" vocabulary to include more subtle words like "disappointed," "hurt," "excited," and "proud."
  • Encourage imaginary play about feelings. "Let's kiss the doll's boo-boo."
  • What's the Goal?

    To increase a child's consciousness of different kinds of feelings and of herself as an active helper.

    5 to 7

    In the early school years, children need rules in order to work well in groups. During free play, kids may prefer to play with one best friend and may exclude other children from games because they have trouble relating to more than one playmate at a time.

    As their friendships deepen, children learn that the causes and cures of sad feelings can be complex. Subtle slights, such as sitting with someone else at lunch, can hurt a friend's feelings, and simple solutions {handing her a toy} no longer work.

    What Can Parents Do?

  • Suggest that kids put themselves in another's place when figuring out what might make the other child feel better.
  • Explain the unseen reasons why a child or sibling might be upset. "Sam's game was cancelled, and now he's disappointed."
  • What's the Goal?

    To teach children that there may be other reasons for feelings than those they directly witness.

    8 to 10

    Children this age are learning to take a friend's perspective. They are able to tailor their help to the other person's needs and to manage some of the requirements of true friendship-mutual trust and keeping commitments, for instance. Individual differences in the capacity for empathy are also becoming evident. Kids who are less empathetic tend to be more physically aggressive. Those who hurt animals or show no ability to feel others' pain are at psychological risk and need professional treatment.

    What Can Parents Do?

  • Make extra efforts to teach peace-making skills to children who use bullying behavior.
  • Show your child how to be a good winner. Practice words to us to make the loser feel better-e.g. "Good game! Maybe you'll win next time."
  • Make the Golden Rule concrete. For example, if your child makes fun of a classmate, say, "How would you feel if you overheard her saying something like that about you?"
  • What's the Goal?

    To show kids how to put empathy in practice in everyday situations with friends.

    11 to 13

    As children enter adolescence, their world continues to expand through exposure to books, school subjects, movies, and TV. They start to empathize with people who are suffering, even those they have never met. Their reactions may be intense, causing them to be greatly troubled by news accounts of war or crime. Closer to home, though, peer pressure may cause them to behave in hurtful ways to kids their age.

    During these years, psychological disturbances may become more evident. Preteens who are violent and able to shut off feelings for victims (by saying, for instance, "they deserved it") need professional help.

    What Can Parents Do?

  • Encourage kids to volunteer for things that interest them, such as baby-sitting during church meetings or working at a homeless shelter.
  • Keep reminding your child of the Golden Rule, even though you don't see it sinking in yet.
  • What's the Goal?

    To show kids they are capable of doing something to alleviate others' suffering.

    14 to 18

    Adolescents are capable of great empathy and humanitariansm. Their

    self-involvement, however, can get in the way. Some teenagers are very concerned with people's feelings; others seem more worried about sports or academics or simply what to wear. Some want to cure social ills like poverty or injustice; others are solely concerned about their own circle of friends. But their self-absorption decreases as they reach the older end of the spectrum.

    Because friends are still influential, teens are likely to want to address suffering collectively. Kids who belong to a religious group, for example, or who become involved in a community project can make remarkable progress in reaching mature levels of empathy.

    What Can Parents Do?

  • Encourage group activities that help others.
  • Bring your teen along when you visit a sick relative. Suggest he pick out a book or inexpensive present the person would like.
  • What's the Goal?

    To continue guiding your teen toward the mature form of empathy-seeing his own in another's good.

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