Sympathy and Empathy in Early Childhood

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Empathy is a trait that pushes the world in a positive direction. This trait can be defined as being able to understand and feel what someone else is going through as if you experienced it yourself. Children can often be brutally honest and the candor in their comments can lead to the harm of others. This poses the question of whether or not empathy and sympathy are programmed into human nature. Sympathy differs from empathy by focusing on feelings of sadness, sorrow, or discomfort for others such as pity. Empathy is important in forming respect and provides a foundation upon which people have the ability to develop the proper emotions given the situations at hand. Children are the future of the world, and in order to produce supportive and understanding adults who are able to give back to their communities, families, friends and even strangers, it is important to understand empathy in children.

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Leading into adulthood, empathy becomes more important due to the increased availability of resources accessible to the individual. This increase in resources allows for action on a larger scale. The results of empathy often conclude in a prosocial or helping behavior which contribute to the well-being of others. These behaviors fuel positive impact in the world. It is one thing to feel another person’s pain and express emotion but acting upon that feeling can make way for a better future for everyone.

To gain a better knowledge on the topic of empathy in children, it is necessary to understand what leads him/her to help. In the article, Prosocial Arousal in Children, written by Robert Hepach, this topic is discussed in great detail. He reveals that children’s helping behavior emerges early in toddlerhood which suggests that helping behaviors are a part of our humanity. Whether or not the helping behavior was altruistic (without self-concern or self-benefit) or done with hopes of self-benefit, poses another element to the topic of empathy. The article states that motivation for helping cannot solely be determined by behavior or physiological aspects, but internal emotions must also be examined. In order to more fully understand the concept, Hepach asks, What is the source of children’s concern in the moment of helping? Hepach observed previous research to draw conclusions to this question. (INTEXTCITATION)

Previous research revealed that children were more likely to help others if an incident occurred spontaneously rather than with planned intent. The finding provides insight into the motivations of the child. Internal arousal in children was measured, when helping, to further understanding of the child’s assessment in regard to emotions on whether or not they would help the individual. After measuring the internal arousal of children, it was concluded that children experienced prosocial arousal in terms of other’s unfulfilled needs. The arousal is prosocial because it occurs in the presence of the needs of others. The children saw the needs of someone else and were motivated to achieve what needed to be done in order to solve the need. The presence of prosocial behavior in children is observable but a closer look must be taken to achieve a greater sense on why young children come to the aid of others in a time of need.

There are many ways in which children help, whether it be: sharing toys, comforting those in distress, or providing instrumental help. Instrumental helping was observed more often than helping or comforting others, but an emotional interest was present more frequently when comforting those in distress. Children will help at seemingly random, uninstructed times, regardless of social praise. This response demonstrates an innate desire in children to help. There are multiple theories as to why children help: involve his/herself in a social interaction, coordinating goals with another individual (this theory shows less motivation in the aspect of improving others’ well-being), and reconstruction the natural order or tying up loose ends.

To distinguish motivation, emotional and physiological aspects are observed as well as how often the child steps in to help. After reviewing studies that measured heart rate, pupil dilation, and observable characteristics, Hepach concluded younger children (children around the age of two) were motivated to help others regardless of the presence of a potential self-benefit. The question as to whether or not the helping behavior of a child can be predicted still remains unanswered.

When finding out if helping behaviors can be predicted, some emotions can be tested to find a potential relationship. In the article, Predicting Sympathy and Prosocial Behavior From Young Children, a relationship between dispositional sadness, prosocial behaviors and sympathy is sought after. A longitudinal study with 256 children was conducted in hopes to find potential predictors of prosocial behaviors. At 18, 30, and 42 months, questionnaires were filled out by caregivers. The caregivers were instructed to rate their child’s dispositional sadness, prosocial behaviors, and sympathy. During this time, the experimenter would be in a room with the child where he/she would drop a box of toys on his/her foot and would pretend to be injured for a minute. The incident would be videotaped and coded to rate the child’s sadness, prosocial behaviors and sympathy. To rate these reactions, the coders looked for responses in the children such as how often they glanced back and forth at the experimenter’s foot and the experimenter, how the child’s eyebrows moved, whether or not they approached the experimenter, and if they did, whether they hugged or kissed the experimenter, and other types of responsive behavior.

The results of the study were not supportive of the hypothesis of sadness impacting prosocial behavior. At 18 months, higher sadness ratings typically resulted in lower prosocial behaviors. The measures of sadness were not consistent with that of the prosocial behaviors observed. They are likely to change as the children grow in age as a result of the emotional states becoming more controllable. With age, the children might show more sympathy as a result of sadness. In the two later trials, the relationship between sympathy and prosocial behaviors began to increase in strength and a more visible positive relationship was witnessed. It is difficult to distinguish a relationship between these variables earlier in the child’s life but becomes more apparent later in early childhood. Sympathy can somewhat be used as a predictor of prosocial behaviors in early childhood but there are other factors that impact the presence of empathy.

Nature or nurture is a debatable topic in psychology that has been present for many years. The topics of genetics and environment tend to play a role in almost every situation revolving around how someone came to be a certain way. This discussion comes into play when searching for answers regarding empathy. The article, Examining the Familial Link Between Positive Affect on Empathy Development in the Second Year helps to add to this discussion as well as components on helping, concern, and positive and negative affect. In this longitudinal study, 584 twins were observed at ages 12-25 months. It was predicted that empathy would be related to helping and that girls would show more concern. The article stated, Biological factors influence empathy and altruism. This statement was taken from previous research that had uncovered these findings. Children typically start to possess the ability to hold concern and perform helping behaviors around the age of two.

In the study conducted, the researchers expected the presence of positive affect to predict greater empathy at the time of the study and at later months. The researchers also predicted the environment to explain early positive affect as well as empathy. Following previous results from other research, it was expected that girls would have higher empathic traits. During the study, the children and his/her caregiver participated in four lab appointments. Pleasure and temperament were assessed in the children during these visits and the parents filled out questionnaires. The questionnaires measured zygosity diagnoses and positive affect. The lab measures included an altered game of peek-a-boo, a puppet game, and an instance in which the caregiver would fake pain after being pinched by a clipboard. These experiments would be coded to understand the children’s empathy, helping behavior, empathic concern, negative affect, and hypothesis testing. A behavior-genetics analysis was also conducted to comprehend the impact genetics and environment has in relation to positive affect, helping, concern, and hypothesis testing.

The study found that positive affect in early childhood is related to higher empathy and helping behaviors. Slight gender differences were found which led to the findings of girls displaying more empathic and prosocial behaviors although boys are not any less capable of performing these actions. The positive affect did not differ between males and females, which was unexpected. A rise of helping, concern, hypothesis testing, and a fall in negative affect was found in the later lab tests (19-25 months). Observing twins gave the chance to observe the role that genetics and environment have in impacting positive affect and empathy. Shared environment and genetics displayed similar positive affect, empathic standings on helping, and concern. This study brings similar results from the previous study that was discussed and adds on the components of genetics and environment as to what makes a child more likely to help.


Knowing that the majority of humans are capable of feeling empathy, we can make implications as to what can help this sensation remain alive and what can be done to help it grow. Understanding that the environment in which a child resides impacts this trait can help parents in the way they raise their children in hopes to raise a respectful, kind child into a positive, caring adult. As a child’s emotional state matures, empathy and sympathy begin to become more relevant in his/her life. This maturity leads to an awareness of others and gives the growing child a choice to act upon feelings of sympathy.

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Sympathy and Empathy in Early Childhood. (2019, Mar 13). Retrieved January 29, 2023 , from

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