Early Childhood Emotional and Social Development: Reflective Empathy
Angela Oswalt, MSW
Another emotional capacity that develops during early childhood, empathy, is also an important component of positive social behavior. Again, as with other emotions, the development of empathy depends on cognitive and language development. Children who cannot engage in abstract thinking or take someone else's perspective are typically unlikely to respond with empathy.
Reflective Empathy is the ability to take another person's perspective in order to understand what they're feeling. Children with Reflective Empathy can understand the causes, effects, and behavioral cues characteristic of various emotions in a sophisticated way. As a result, they start to understand that certain emotional cues can suggest what another person is feeling. Cues may include another person's facial expressions, spoken thoughts, or behaviors such as laughing or crying. Young children may also be able to predict someone's emotional response from the context of the event, such as anticipating that someone who accidentally cut his or her finger will be in pain and feel sad.
As children first develop Reflective Empathy, the feelings can seem overwhelming because they do not know how to comfort or help the other person. Children may start experiencing the situation as if it were actually happening to them and become distressed. For example, if Jane saw Billy cut his finger, she might become so upset or scared imagining Billy's reaction and feelings that she might start crying and screaming, too. However, as children continue to develop cognitively, they learn strategies for comforting or helping other people. In the same example above, an older child could say, "It's OK, Billy. Don't be scared. I'll go get your Mommy."
Reflective Empathy is a predecessor to pro-social, or altruistic behaviors, which people engage in simply for the benefit and well-being of another person (rather than engaging in behaviors because they want to get something out of the situation for themselves). However, altruistic behavior may take several more years to develop.
Several emotions that people experience intensely can be particularly challenging for young children. Learning in early childhood how to appropriately express and deal with anger, aggression, and fear is a valuable life and social skill. One of the most difficult parts of teaching children to deal with intense emotions is remembering to take advantage of "teachable moments." Children are continuously observing their parents and caregivers. Rather than getting frustrated, angry or aggressive in response to situations (or children themselves), model appropriate behavior. Or, if you "lose it," remember to admit that you made a mistake and brainstorm with your child better ways of handling future emotionally-charged situations.
Young children often need plenty of guidance and positive discipline in order to learn how to control their anger. The best message that parents can communicate is that anger is a perfectly natural emotion, but there are appropriate and inappropriate ways to handle it depending on the situation. In addition, as mentioned above, caregivers should demonstrate (by example) how to calmly handle anger-provoking situations. Since kids are still new at Reflective Empathy, caregivers need to talk to their children about feelings and reactions. For example: Suppose you are in a hurry and you encounter a bumper-to-bumper traffic jam. You are furious because now you will be late. You can calmly say "I am so angry right now!" (labeling the emotion). We are going to be late because we are stuck in this traffic (labeling the reason for the anger). Then offer a calm-down solution: "I am going to turn on the radio and sing loudly so I can get back in control of how I feel."