Before we explain the development of empathy in childhood, let’s talk about the expression itself. The origin of the term “empathy” comes from what the Scottish Enlightenment called “sympathy”. Adam Smith and David Hume, in their treatise on human nature, described it as a natural means of communication.
This definition is the basis of neuroscience, developmental psychology and social psychology. The development of empathy in childhood reveals very interesting facts about some of the evolutionary aspects of our species.
There is one idea that stands out: Our socialization is not the result of empathy, at least not initially. In fact, evolutionary biology tells us that altruistic behavior arose before we were given this potential.
Some species that lack empathy exhibit such behavior. This is the case with social insects such as bees. They die shortly after striking a target because they sacrifice themselves to protect their community. Thus, the connection between empathy and altruism is not simple.
The developmental psychological approach
Lipp’s work (1903) focused on the difference between the terms “sympathy” and “empathy”. Researchers in developmental psychology defined empathy as a multidimensional concept that takes into account the cognitive component.
It thus involves acknowledging and understanding other people’s feelings and the emotional component related to sharing love or an indirect response.
Cognitive models for empathy development
Since the 1990s, people have been studying empathy from the perspective of emotional intelligence. This is where Mayer and Salovey’s model (1997) stands out. Empathy is considered to include perception and understanding of other people’s feelings.
Another relevant model is the Bar-On model for emotional-social intelligence (1997, 2000). This model argues that empathy is a component of a factor that we refer to as interpersonal skills. That is, develop the emotional intelligence ability to be aware of and understand the feelings and ideas of others.
These two models are not as integrative as those proposed by developmental psychology. In fact, they focus more on the cognitive component.
Recently, Batson and collaborators suggested a distinction between perspective and empathy. Gaining perspective seems to be the precursor to specifically empathic reactions (Batson et al., 1992).
Hoffman’s model for the development of empathy in childhood
Hoffman, a leading theorist on the development of empathy in childhood, recognizes two dimensions in the study of empathy:
- The recognition of other people’s internal states.
- The indirect loving response.
Hoffman’s model explains how empathy begins and how it develops in children. In fact, he says the central idea is the integration of love and cognition that goes beyond an approach to information processing.
He argues that empathy develops in a similar way to the stages of social cognitive development. This process begins with an empathic global feeling in which a child does not have a clear distinction between himself and others. Thus, they are confused about the source of emotions.
From here, it goes through several phases to the most advanced step, combining what was achieved in previous phases. In the more advanced stages, one person may be empathetic with others. Mainly by knowing that there are other physical entities than themselves and that others have internal states independent of them.
A mature level of empathy allows a person to be more affected by the vital conditions of others rather than by an immediate situation. According to Hoffman, there must be parallelism between emotions and devotion and thoughts, moral principles, and behavioral tendencies.
Phases in the development of empathy in childhood
According to Hoffman, the development of empathy in childhood consists of four phases:
The first phase (global)
This happens during the first year of a person’s life. Here a child still does not perceive others as different from himself. Thus, they confuse the pain they perceive in others as their own, as if it were happening to them. For example, a baby who sees their mother crying can dry their own eyes.
An 11 month old girl saw another girl fall and started crying. She stared at the victim for a moment, then put her thumb in her mouth and hid her face in her mother’s lap. She acts in this way, as it would have been the most common reaction if she herself had fallen.
The second phase (egocentrism)
This phase corresponds to the second year of a person’s life. Here the child is aware that others may also experience unpleasant situations. However, they assume that the inner states of others are the same as those they experience for themselves.
For example, a 13-month-old boy who sees a sad adult can offer them his favorite teddy bear. Another example is when a child of the same age runs to find their mother to comfort another child who is crying.
The third phase (other people’s feelings)
This phase lasts from the second to the third year of life. Here, a child is aware that the emotions they experience are different from other people’s. Yet they can react to them in a selfless way.
During this period, a child is already able to understand that another person’s intentions and needs differ from theirs. Therefore, a person’s emotions may also differ from their own. They can thus offer others comfort.
Fourth phase (other living conditions)
This last phase is the last period of childhood. In it, the feelings of others are perceived not only as reactions to a mere moment, but also as expressions of their general life experience. That is, they respond differently to transient and chronic pain conditions because they take into account the general condition of others.