Empathy and social development in young children


The desire to help others is something very natural. It is a genuine, typically human emotion. It is even said that people who help others are happier and live longer! But not everyone is always for his Fellow man there. The character and therefore the willingness to help others comes into being at a young age. But how exactly does it work? And why does one child show good social behavior and the other does not, or does so much less?


Babies respond to other people’s emotions from birth. For example, they can mimic their parents’ facial expressions or start crying spontaneously when they hear another baby cry. But then we are not dealing with the baby’s real emotions, but with pure imitation behavior. But at three months, babies react differently to happy or sad faces.

A one-year-old baby already reacts sympathetically to pictures of crying children and from this age the ability to feel pity for others will develop more and more. Half of all toddlers aged 13-15 months try to comfort a person when they are sad. The toddler will then try to touch or hug that person because they want the other to feel better.

Between about the 18th and 20th months, the toddler shows active behavior when it wants to comfort others. It shares its toy with a sad person or brings a plaster or blanket to someone who is sick.

In addition to active behavior, toddlers aged 23-25 ​​months also show concern. They then make suggestions, for example, to help the other person feel better. Of course, these are still suggestions that come entirely from the child’s world of experience. For example, a nearly two-year-old girl gives her sad mother her favorite doll because she likes to cuddle with the doll herself and assumes that her mother will feel better if she cuddles with the doll.

At the age of three to four, children begin to understand that not everyone reacts as they do. What a Another child does not necessarily have to find a child beautiful. The child then tries to find out why another person is reacting in this way, as responds and how it can best help that person.

The older a child gets, the more often he observes how a person consoles or helps another. He always succeeds in drawing logical conclusions, which enables him to empathize with others. So it becomes more and more skillful to help others.

Most teenagers live in their own world. They deal with their imago and their popularity. They usually identify with a certain group and treat outsiders with hostility. A good two thirds of all teenagers show selfish behavior and are not quick to help others. Only a third shows participation in the fate of others.


Parents play a key role in their child’s social development. Of course, the type of upbringing that a child enjoys is very important here. But how exactly do certain upbringing methods influence children’s social behavior?


The child is subjected to the will of his parents and receives little tenderness. The parents are the boss, and the child has to do exactly what it is told to do. In this way, the child has no chance to think independently, which causes him to start to doubt himself. It will show little to no initiative: it will withdraw when it is in the company of other children.

Permissive education

Permissive parents show tenderness to their child, but do not teach them discipline and do not reward them for disciplined behavior. This method of education is also known as "pampering education". The child gets everything thrown in his lap and does not learn the principle "whoever takes must also give". Such a child shows selfish behavior and is not interested in the needs of his fellow human beings.

Authoritative education

This style of education is considered by educators as the most appropriate way to let a child develop a healthy dose of empathy. The parents set reasonable limits and explain everything with authority and love. They are warm and respectful. They talk to their child about the effect that certain behavior has on others. Among other things, they expect from their child that they take on small tasks and give them, for example, the chance to do unselfish acts. The child learns to empathize with others and will quickly be ready to help another.


Empathy can serve several purposes. The most important thing is of course to be able to help someone well. But it is also useful to be able to predict someone else’s reaction when you have to convey bad news to them. To alleviate the pain, you make up an excuse that you know the other person will accept.

For example, mom asks her eight-year-old son to play well with his three-year-old sister. The son has no desire to do so and therefore says that he still has to do homework. Mom will of course not say to him then: "Let the homework be.".

Incidentally, empathy is also misused for anti-social behavior. If you want to annoy someone in a targeted manner, it is useful to know their weaknesses and thus to be able to predict what will hurt them the most.


A role model for a child’s social development is crucial. Children pay more attention to what an adult does than what they say and will imitate what they see. Role models of warmth and love are more impressive than emotionally cold role models. Children have a great need to identify with people with whom they have close emotional ties, usually with their parents.

Studies have shown how important it is to combine a strong bond with a good role model. Preschool boys who have a loving, warm-hearted father show more generosity and empathy than boys of the same age who have a less loving father. A ten-year-old child is just as selfless and attentive as his same-sex parent.


The most important place where children learn norms and values ​​is the family. It is important that one parent, or preferably both parents, is often present in the child’s life, both physically, emotionally and intellectually. Schools, clubs and legal regulations also contribute to the healthy development of norms and values. However, this effect is minimal if the child gets no attention at home.


What can you do as a parent to stimulate your child’s social behavior?

  • Let your child feel that it is good for them to love other people and help others.
  • Be a good role model and be kind to yourself and your child. If you don’t do this yourself, your child will imitate your behavior.
  • The media also exert influence. A child who sees friendly behavior on TV will try to imitate it.
  • As your child grows older, role models other than parents become important. But all too often children fall victim to the (sometimes hostile) pressure of their peers. Try to surround your child with helpers and try to let them know how much satisfaction it is to help someone. At first it may help reluctantly, but over time it will gladly do it on its own.
  • Tell your child about famous benefactors such as Mother Teresa and Mahatma Ghandi and, for example, well-known actors and pop stars who do a lot of good.
  • Try not to punish your child by depriving him of privileges if he or she has not behaved socially. It will only mean that it will defend and protect itself. In other words, it will then focus on itself. Rather, try to arouse his empathy by telling him, for example, that his sister is sad now because it gave her a push, which made her fall hard. This way your child will focus on others instead of on yourself.


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Christina Cherry
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