Empathy—feeling what another person might feel—is an emotional capacity more common in early childhood than during the preceding toddler years. Empathy is one of the important motivators of healthy social behavior that leads to sympathetic responses of concern and care for others.
In some children, however, empathy does not lead to acts of kindness and helpfulness while connecting with another through a sympathetic response of concern. For these children, empathy escalates their own personal distress over the situation.
Temperament is a partial explanation for why some kids respond with sympathy and others with distress. Children who are sociable, assertive, and good at regulating their own emotions are more likely to display sympathy—helping, sharing, and comforting others—than kids who have a hard time regulating their own feelings. For children who have yet to learn how to regulate their own emotions, their own feelings are too overwhelming to allow them to connect with someone in need.
Parents can help though. Parents who model warmth and encouragement and display a sensitive, empathic concern for their child’s feelings are laying the foundation for their child to react in a concerned way when he or she experiences the distress of others. Parents can also intervene with care and concern when a teachable moment presents itself. If, for example, Joe is building a tower with blocks, and the last block tips the whole thing over, Tim may understand that Joe feels sad or frustrated, yet he may feel distressed rather than helpful. Tim feels Joe’s frustration but doesn’t yet know how to handle his own feelings or what to do next. A parent can intervene and comfort Tim while showing him how he might be able to comfort Joe in word and deed by going over to help rebuild the tower.
Help children develop empathy and sympathy. These emotional capacities motivate healthy social and altruistic behavior.