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Children demonstrate an emerging ability to understand someone else’s feelings and to share in the emotional experiences of others.

Young children develop empathy over time. Young infants do not have the ability to understand and share in the feelings of others, yet there are certain behaviors and experiences that support the development of empathy. Through special and meaningful relationships with primary caregivers, children observe and learn about social behaviors that support an awareness of feelings in others and, eventually, an understanding of them.1

Familiar adults in children’s lives are the first models for empathetic behavior. Children observe and learn through the actions and responses of their caregivers. Children use social cues to guide their behaviors and make sense of what is occurring around them.2 Children begin to apply these learned behaviors through their social interactions. Therefore, it is important for adults to create a warm, caring, and loving environment for very young children and communicate about feelings that both children and others may experience.

Very early on, children first demonstrate an awareness of others by simply observing and reacting to their environment. This may include looking at a crying child or smiling at a familiar adult. Children then use intentional behaviors to draw out certain responses and emotions from others and begin to identify certain emotions in themselves and others. Closer to age three, children demonstrate a simple understanding of feelings in others. This awareness and understanding of feelings of others is crucial for children in establishing successful relationships with peers.

Commonalities and Differences in Emotional Expression

In order for children to build their ability to empathize, they need to be able to recognize their own feelings and the emotional expressions of others. The expression of emotions is closely linked to the cultural and societal influences of children’s family and environment. Emotions are reinforced by caregivers depending on which emotions they feel will best prepare children for success in their particular culture and society.3 For example, the Western culture often encourages pride in young children, while Asian families focus on encouraging modesty.4 Yet, across cultures, there is agreement that there is a set of emotions that are experienced by all, regardless of culture or experience. These six emotions are happiness, sadness, fear, surprise, anger, and disgust. They are considered to be basic, universal emotions due to the idea that they are instinctive.5

Birth to 9 months

Children begin to build awareness of others’ feelings by observing and reacting to sounds that others make. Toward the end of this age period, infants understand that they are individuals and separate from their caregiver(s), a crucial milestone in interpreting the feelings of others.

Indicators for children include:

  • Watches and observes adults and other children
  • Cries when hearing another infant cry
  • Responds to interactions from caregiver(s), e.g., smiles when caregiver smiles, looks toward a caregiver when he or she shakes a rattle
  • Shows signs of separation anxiety, e.g., protests when a caregiver leaves the room
  • Begins to share in simple emotions by reading facial and gestural cues, e.g., repeats activities that make others laugh

Strategies for interaction

  • Provide emotional caring and consistency; respond quickly and thoughtfully to the child’s sounds and cries
  • Describe what the child may be feeling with words; label the child’s sounds and coos
  • Provide opportunities for the child to see different facial expressions: baby board books with pictures of other infants, or the use of a mirror during play
  • Use more than one manner to express and share in feelings with the child, e.g., body movement, words, facial expressions, and voice inflection

7 months to 18 months

Children have more experience with a wide range of emotions, as they begin to recognize and respond to different facial and emotional expressions. Children also begin to demonstrate the understanding of how behavior brings out reactions and emotions from others.

Indicators for children include:

  • Smiles with intention to draw out a smile from a familiar other
  • Uses social referencing with caregiver(s) when in uncertain situations, e.g., glances at a caregiver’s face for cues on how to respond to an unfamiliar person or new situation
  • Reacts to a child who is upset by observing or moving physically closer to the child
  • Shares in both positive and negative emotions with caregiver(s), e.g., shares in wonders, amazement, delight, and disappointment
  • Begins to have a greater awareness of own emotions, e.g., says or gestures “no” to refuse, squeals and continues to laugh when happy

Strategies for interaction

  • Respond to the child’s attempts to seek emotional responses; try to use facial expressions to match the child’s tone of voice, sounds, and body language
  • Model empathetic behavior and control own emotions, e.g., avoid over-control and power struggles; instead, use redirection
  • Name emotions and recognize behaviors that the child is exhibiting, e.g., saying, “I can see you are mad by the way you are stomping your feet!”
  • Respond thoughtfully and genuinely to the child’s attempts to socially engage and interact

16 months to 24 months

Children begin to notice different emotions that other children are expressing and may begin to respond to these emotions.

Indicators for children include:

  • Imitates comforting behaviors from caregiver(s), e.g., pats or hugs a child when upset
  • Recognizes some of his or her own emotions, e.g., grabs a comfort object when sad
  • Demonstrates awareness of different emotions and feelings during play, e.g., rocks a baby doll and whispers “shhh”
  • Shares in and communicates simple emotions of others, e.g., “mama sad”, “papa happy”

Strategies for interaction

  • Provide words for feelings as often as possible throughout the day
  • Recognize and respect individual and cultural emotional responses, e.g., a child who does not want to be hugged when upset
  • Help the child recognize certain emotions by describing and naming what the child is feeling
  • Help the child to develop an understanding of feelings of others by using pictures, posters, books, and mirrors
  • Allow plenty of time for pretend play and interact with the child while modeling empathy

21 months to 36 months

Children begin to exhibit an understanding that other people have feelings different from their own.

Indicators for children include:

  • Communicates how other children may be feeling and why, e.g., states that a peer is sad because his or her toy was taken away
  • Responds to a child in distress in an attempted manner to make that child feel better, e.g., gives a crying child a hug, uses soothing words, or uses distraction
  • Shares in and shows an emotional response for peers’ feelings, e.g., may show concern for a child who is hurt, or smile for a child who is happy and jumping up and down

Strategies for interaction

  • Model thoughtful and sensitive practices when listening and responding to the child’s description of his or her feelings
  • Continue to name and discuss feelings, e.g., state why the child may be feeling certain emotions
  • Genuinely praise the child when he or she responds in a sensitive manner to another child
  • Gently guide the children’s play to encourage empathy, e.g., “Michael is hungry, too. He needs some pretend snack on his plate.”

Keep in Mind

Child development does not occur in isolation; children reach their developmental milestones within their social and cultural contexts. However, while “how the child develops” may look different, “what the child develops” can be observed in a more universal fashion. Below are some indicators that may warrant a discussion with child’s healthcare provider for closer examination.

  • Does not smile by four months of age
  • Does not exhibit any hesitation or anxiety around strangers after nine months of age
  • Does not babble, point, or make meaningful gestures by 12 months of age
  • Does not respond to his or her name


  1. Karen, Robert, Ph.D. (1998). Becoming Attached: First Relationships and How They Shape Our Capacity to Love. New York: Oxford University Press.
  2. Stern, Daniel (1985). The interpersonal world of the infant. New York: Basic Books.
  3. Gonzalez-Mena, J. (2001). Multicultural issues in child care. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing.
  4. Gonzalez-Mena, J. (2001). Multicultural issues in child care. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing.
  5. Eckman, P. (1992). An Argument for Basic Emotions. Cognition and Emotion, 6(3/4), 169–200.

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Reviewed: 2012