Early Childhood Psychology: Children Feelings and Emotions

Empathy and Perspective Taking

Empathy is described as the sharing of a recognized feeling of another person. By using verbal and nonverbal cues a person can distinguish through facial expressions, body language and vocal ranges how others are feeling. Four levels of empathy are described by Hoffman (1987). These four stages are global empathy, egocentric empathy, empathy for another’s feelings and empathy for another’s life conditions.

Empathy begins in infancy through infant imitations. Infants are able to recognize different emotions of another and are able to respond to these emotions. When my daughter was only a few weeks old she I remember her showing distress after hearing another baby cry in the doctor’s office. As the cries grew louder my daughter showed my distress until finally she ended up wailing herself.

Between the ages of 3 and 4 a child is capable of distinguishing emotional responses of other children to certain issues. During a study among American and Chinese children the children were able to recognize feelings of happy and unhappy by age three. Feelings of afraid, angry and sad were distinguished later than three years old. (Newman & Newman, 2006, p.237.)

My oldest daughter is 3 ½ and when we read books I like to ask her how each person feels about different situations in the books. I allow her to observe different facial expressions of the characters in the books this way she can connect various nonverbal cues with the various feelings such as happy, sad, afraid, etc. I find that it is hardest for her to distinguish between afraid, angry and sad. Perhaps this is because the facial expressions look similar to a child.

Along with identifying the emotions of another an early school age child can also distinguish why these emotions are present. My daughter watched the “Land Before Time” recently and when I asked her why the little dinosaur was said she responded, “Because he has no mommy.” I find that my daughter often responds very emotionally to movies for instance during a sad scene she may cry or during a funny scene she may laugh.

While empathy refers to the “ability to identify and experience the emotional state of another person” perspective taking refers to “the cognitive capacity to consider a situation from the point of view of another person.” (Newman & Newman, 2006, p. 237.) Perspective taking entails that the individual be able to recognize that a person’s point of view may differ from his or her own.

While a child as young as 2 or 3 may not distinguish between their needs and others needs a child of about 4 and 5 can show evidence of understanding others’ needs. My 3 ½ year old does not understand why it bothers her younger sister when she takes a toy away from her, especially when it belongs to her. “This is my toy,” my oldest will explain, “I want to play with it now.” She doesn’t comprehend that her happiness in this scenario makes her younger sister unhappy.

In our next and last article of the series we will conclude by looking at parental discipline in the early childhood years.

This post is part of the series: Psychology of the Child

This series of articles will look at several aspects of development during the early childhood years which can affect the child psychologically.
  1. Psychology of the Child: Development of a Sense of Self
  2. Psychology of the Child: Early Childhood Education Part 2
  3. Psychology of the Child: Early Childhood Education : Part 3