Child Development: 5 things you need to know about… empathy

What is empathy, how does it develop in the early years, and what can practitioners and parents do to support it? Ruth Thomson explains


If the coronavirus pandemic has proved anything, then it is the importance of empathy – the ability to ‘walk in another’s shoes’.

Empathy involves the capacity to see and identify another’s feelings, take and value another’s perspective and respond appropriately. All elements of the process are important – for example, the ability only to share another’s emotions can leave a person overwhelmed and unable to respond; likewise, a person may be able to take another’s perspective yet not care.

It is worth noting, however, that research definitions of empathy continue to vary.


Empathy gives us an emotional understanding of ourselves and others. It is a foundation for compassion and acting ethically and provides the basis for good friendships and other relationships, both loving and professional. Turning our attention to the plight of others during the coronavirus pandemic can also help us combat any feelings of isolation.

While empathy is linked to the development of pro-social behaviour, so a lack of empathy is associated with some anti-social behaviours, including bullying.


Empathy develops throughout childhood and adolescence and is shaped by a range of factors, including genetics, temperament and environment. Critical to its development in the early years of a child’s life are: secure and loving relationships in infancy; social referencing (when babies and toddlers learn to read and imitate adults’ gestures and facial expressions); and theory of mind (when a child realises they are an individual and that other people’s thoughts and beliefs may be different from their own).

Many toddlers are sensitive to the feelings of others and may mimic their emotions but cannot be said to feel empathy. Three-year-olds can usually respond to a friend’s distress with simple soothing gestures, while four-year-olds are able to see a situation from another’s perspective.


While we are born with the capacity for empathy, its development needs experience and practice, and can be supported in many ways. Children learn empathy both from watching us and from experiencing our empathy for them, so:

  • When empathising with a child, reflect on their feelings (‘Are you feeling scared of…?’)
  • Acknowledge, name and validate a child’s feelings, rather than rushing to stop them being angry or upset.
  • Talk about others’ feelings (‘Chloe is feeling sad because…).
  • Show empathy to others, including people different from yourself (‘The old man looks tired. Shall we give him our seat…?’)
  • Rather than expect a child to immediately say ‘I’m sorry’ – which they may not fully understand – talk about their actions and feelings. This will help them understand the cause and effect of their behaviour and develop self-awareness.
  • Share stories about feelings. Books are a powerful tool for building children’s empathy, and EmpathyLab produces annual ‘Read for Empathy’ guides to the best of children’s literature (see below).
  • Talk about feelings within children’s play (‘Do you think Teddy is feeling upset?’).
  • Offer opportunities for role play – a perfect means for exploring how others might be feeling.
  • Support children’s ability to self-regulate – a child with strong regulation skills will be less likely to shrink from others in distress.
  • Create a culture in which children are encouraged to consider the needs of others, and are motivated by intrinsic, rather than material, rewards.


Empathy Day, on 9 June, will this year be moving online. The organiser is EmpathyLab, a not-for-profit Community Interest Company dedicated to building children’s empathy, literacy and social activism through high-quality literature.

Early Years, School and Family activity packs will be available online from 26 May, and on the day there will be online contributions from authors including children’s laureate Cressida Cowell.


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