The development of empathy in childhood

The concept of empathy is in vogue. But how do we develop this potentiality? What states do we go through until we can distinguish the other as an independent self

Before explaining the development of empathy in childhood, let us situate the origin of this term. The origin of the concept “empathy” derives from what the philosophy of the Scottish Illustration called “sympathy”. David Hume, in his treatise on human nature, and Adam Smith describe it as a natural means of communication.

It is this definition that will be used as a basis in neuroscience, developmental psychology and social psychology. The development of empathy in childhood has provided very curious facts about evolutionary aspects as a species.

One idea stands out: our socialisation is not originally due to empathy. The biology of evolution shows us that altruistic behaviour arose before the acquisition of this potentiality. Some species that lack empathy exhibit such behaviour. This is the case of social insects, such as bees which, dying shortly after stinging their target, sacrifice themselves to protect the swarm. The link between empathy and altruism is not simple.

The focus of developmental psychology

Lipps’ work (1903) focused on the difference between the terms sympathy and empathy. Researchers in developmental psychology have defined the concept of empathy as a multidimensional construct, taking into account the cognitive component. This includes recognising and understanding the emotions of others and the emotional component of sharing affect or responding indirectly.

Cognitive models

On the other hand, since the 1990s empathy has been studied from the point of view of emotional intelligence, with the model of Mayer and Salovey (1997) standing out in the first place. Empathy is seen as an element which includes perceiving the emotions of others, as well as understanding one’s own emotions.

Another relevant model was that of socio-emotional intelligence by Bar-On (1997, 2000). He proposes that empathy is a component of a factor called interpersonal skills, and is seen as the ability to be aware of and understand the emotions, feelings and ideas of others. These two models are not as integrative as those proposed in developmental psychology. In them, there is no space for the emotional component, focusing more on the cognitive component.

More current proposal

Today, Batson and collaborators have proposed a distinction between perspective-taking and empathy. Perspective-taking appears to constitute the key precursor of specifically empathic reactions (Batson et al., 1992).

Hoffman’s model of empathy in childhood

Hoffman, the main theorist on the development of empathy in childhood, recognises two dimensions to be studied in empathy: the recognition of the internal states of others and the indirect affective response. Hoffman’s model explains how empathy begins and develops in children. He states that his “central idea is the integration of affection and cognition, and goes beyond an approximation of the processing of information”.

The concept of empathy is in vogue. But how do we develop this potentiality? What states do we go through until we can distinguish the other as an independent self, with its own emotions, thoughts and circumstances?

He argues that empathy develops in a similar way to states of social cognitive development. This process begins with a global empathic feeling in which the child does not have a clear distinction between the self and the other, and is confused about the source of such a feeling. It then progresses through various stages to the most advanced one, which combines what it has obtained in previous stages.

In the most advanced stages, a person is able to empathise with another knowing that they are physical entities distinct from the self and have internal states independent of the individual him/herself. A mature level of empathy enables the individual to be influenced more by the life condition of the other person than by the immediate situation. According to Hoffman, there must be a parallelism of feelings and affections with thoughts, moral principles and behavioural tendencies.

Stages of the development of empathy in childhood

The development of empathy from early childhood in human beings, according to Hoffman, has 4 stages:

First stage (global empathy)

It comprises the first year of a person’s life and consists of the fact that the child does not yet perceive others as different from himself. For this reason, the pain that he perceives in the other is confused with his own unpleasant feelings, as if it were happening to himself. For example, the baby who, on seeing his mother crying, dries his own eyes.

Another example: an 11-month-old girl sees another girl fall and begins to cry. She stares at the “victim” for an instant, then puts her thumb in her mouth and hides her face in her mother’s lap. A habitual reaction of when she herself falls.

Second stage (egocentric empathy)

It corresponds to the second year of life, and the child is aware that it is the other person who is going through the unpleasant situation. However, she assumes that the internal states experienced by the other person are being felt by herself.

A 13-month-old child who sees a sad adult offers him his favourite toy. Or, again, a child of the same age goes running to get her own mother so that she can console the other child who was crying, even if the mother of the latter is present.

Third stage of the child’s development of empathy (empathy for the feelings of others)

It runs from the second to the third year. The child is aware that the feelings he experiences are different from those of the other person, and is able to respond to them in a non-self-centred way. At this point, she is already in a position to understand that the other person’s intentions and needs differ from her own and, therefore, that person’s emotions may also differ from her own. Thus, for example, she becomes able to console.

Fourth Stage (empathy for the life condition of others)

It comprises the final period of childhood. The feelings of others are perceived not only as reactions of the moment, but also as expressions of their general life experience. That is, they respond differently to transitory and chronic states of pain, since they take into consideration the general condition of the other.

The child develops the capacity to be empathic to the living conditions of a culture, a class or a group of individuals. This combination is the most advanced form of empathy and can be refined with the cognitive development of the child.

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