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Foundation: Empathy

California Infant/Toddler Learning & Development Foundations.
The developing ability to share in the emotional experiences of others
8 months 18 months 36 months

At around eight months of age, children demonstrate awareness of others’ feelings by reacting to their emotional expressions.

At around 18 months of age, children change their behavior in response to the feelings of others even though their actions may not always make the other person feel better. Children show an increased understanding of the reason for another’s distress and may become distressed by the other’s distress. (14 mos.; Zahn-Waxler, Robinson, and Emde 1992; Thompson 1987; 24 mos.; Zahn-Waxler and Radke-Yarrow 1982, 1990)

At around 36 months of age, children understand that other people have feelings that are different from their own and can sometimes respond to another’s distress in a way that might make that person feel better. (24–36 mos.; Hoffman 1982; 18 mos.; Thompson 1987, 135).

For example, the child may:

  • Stop playing and look at a child who is crying. (7 mos.; American Academy of Pediatrics 2004, 212)

  • Laugh when an older sibling or peer makes a funny face. (8 mos.; Meisels and others 2003)

  • Return the smile of the infant care teacher.

  • Grimace when another child cries. (Older than 6 mos.; Wingert and Brant 2005, 35)

For example, the child may:

  • Offer to help a crying playmate by bringing his own mother over. (13–15 mos.; Wingert and Brant 2005, 35)

  • Try to hug a crying peer. (18mos.; Thompson 1987, 135)

  • Bring her own special blanket to a peer who is crying. (13–15 mos.; Wingert and Brant 2005, 35)

  • Become upset when another child throws a tantrum.

  • Gently pat a crying peer on his back, just like his infant care teacher did earlier in the day. (16 mos.; Bergman and Wilson 1984; Zahn-Waxler and others 1992)

  • Hit a child who is crying loudly.

  • Stop playing and look with concerned attention at a child who is screaming.

  • Move quickly away from a child who is crying loudly.

For example, the child may:

  • Do a silly dance in an attempt to make a crying peer smile. (24–36 mos.; Dunn 1988)

  • Communicate, “Lucas is sad because Isabel took his cup.” (36 mos.; Harris and others 1989; Yuill 1984)

  • Comfort a younger sibling who is crying by patting his back, expressing “It’s okay” and offering him a snack. (Denham 1998, 34)

  • Communicate, “Mama sad” when the mother cries during a movie. (24–36 mos.; Dunn 1994; Harris 2000, 282).

  • Communicate, “Olivia’s mama is happy” and point to or indicate the illustration in the picture book. (24 mos.; Harris 2000, 282).

  • Get an infant care teacher to help a child who has fallen down and is crying.

Behaviors leading up to the foundation (4 to 7 months)

During this period, the child may:

  • Cry when hearing another baby cry. (Younger than 6 mos; Wingert and Brant 2005, 35)

Behaviors leading up to the foundation (9 to 17 months)

During this period, the child may:

  • Stand nearby and quietly watch a peer who has fallen down and is crying.

  • Exhibit social referencing by looking for emotional indicators in others’ faces, voices, or gestures to decide what to do when uncertain. (10–12 mos.; Thompson 1987, 129)

  • Cry upon hearing another child cry. (12 mos.; Meisels and others 2003, 26)

Behaviors leading up to the foundation (19 to 35 months)

During this period, the child may:

  • Hug a crying peer. (18–24 mos.; Parks 2004, 123)

  • Become upset in the presence of those who are upset.

Next Foundation: Emotion Regulation

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Questions:   Early Education and Support Division | | 916-322-6233
Last Reviewed: Tuesday, January 12, 2021
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