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My 3.5-year-old preschooler is pretty book-smart, but is quite emotionally immature for his age. This has led to a frequent, difficult situation for us.

He'll be acting out a bit - say, not wanting to get out of his carseat at preschool. Mommy will start to pick him up, and in the process, hit her head on the car a bit, saying 'Ow' and clearly being a bit hurt. Or, he'll be having a hard time going to bed, and hit or bite Mommy, and she'll again be hurt and express that.

He then proceeds to laugh, quite a bit. This is pretty frustrating, if you've just hurt yourself because he was acting out, or been hurt by him, and then the reaction is laughter.

Dealing with this on our side we largely understand; it's hard to actually do, mind you, but we know what we need to do. Take a time out, go somewhere else, have the other parent take over, whatever to get us out of the situation so we don't get any more angry.

But, how do we help him deal with this? We've tried explaining to him that he's hurt us or we're hurt, and talking about how he'd feel. When he's entirely calm he understands this. But it clearly doesn't carry through when he's not entirely calm - even when he's mostly calm, just acting like a normal three year old.

The only thing that seems to work (to get him to stop laughing and understand it's serious) is yelling at him, which isn't what we want to do (and not something we do on purpose - just when we lose control). Then, he cries and is quite shocked (presumably as we very rarely yell), and apologizes; so he clearly knows what's going on, but we can't find a better way to get through.

What is the expectation of a 3-4 year old in terms of empathy, here? Is it unfair for us to expect him to show empathy when he's not 100% calm? This page seems to suggest at 2-3 they should understand happy/sad, and certainly at times he does, but at more important times he doesn't seem to.

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    Just my own story here: my kid was the same at 3.5. Just a few months later he started being very sensitive to other people's emotions. He asked for a baby doll to play with and he's very gentle with it. He cries when songs or stories are sad. He's concerned when other kids are crying. Before something clicked in his head, he was very insensitive, and nothing we did helped. So in our case, the cure was: passage of time. – Ana Mar 27 '15 at 18:20
  • @Ana Thanks. That can be an answer, if you want, there's no requirement for questions like this to have detailed scientific studies in them :) It's also very possibly the correct answer. My son does show some interest in his puppy (stuffed animal), but probably not to the level of caring about its emotions. That's sort of what I'm getting at, in any event: is this me being worried because my 3 year old isn't a 4 year old, or is this abnormal (or at least at/below average) at this age and something I can or should work on. – Joe Mar 27 '15 at 18:25
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You're correct that your son "should" have more empathy at this age, certainly not in all situations, but these are basic and easily comprehensible by a 3.5 year old, especially maternal distress.

Recent developments in research cast doubt on early conceptions of young children as primarily egocentric and incurring of others’ needs. Studies reviewed indicate a broad range of social competencies children bring to their interpersonal relationships. As early as 2 years of age, they show (a) the cognitive capacity to interpret, in simple ways, the physical and psychological states of others, (b) the emotional capacity to experience, affectively, the state of others, and (c) the behavioral repertoire that permits the possibility of attempts to alleviate discomfort in others.

Interestingly, many researchers differentiate between empathy (an affective response, i.e. feeling some measure of what the other person is feeling), sympathy (understanding but not necessarily feeling someone else’s emotional state), and personal distress (the aversion one feels - e.g. anxiety or discomfort - on understanding another’s feelings). In this model, personal distress from empathetic overarousal leads one to a self- rather than to an other- (or moral) orientation.

Some researchers found a link between aggressive behavior and empathetic overarousal. The reading is interesting. Did you perhaps notice more responsiveness earlier that has let off somewhat? Overarousal may be an issue here.

What can you do?

You can wait and see. Time takes care of so many parenting concerns, it's amazing that we spent as much energy worrying as we have in retrospect. This is one option.

Personally, I would work on it. From the studies I looked at, empathy, even at 4 years, is a positive predictor of problems at 6 and 8 years, and those, in turn... etc.

As your own link suggested, a child's ability to relate emotionally depends to some degree on him emotional vocabulary. There are age-appropriate lists of feeling words available on the internet. Use these words often, whenever they apply. If you see a child fall and cry, identify what that child might be feeling - hurt, sad; if you or your child is feeling something, help him put it into words and reward him with praise when he works it out correctly. ("That's right! you saw that she is sad." "That's right, he looks angry. Do you ever feel angry? I do, too.") If he responds with a sympathetic act, reward his choice of behaviors. Helping around the house when you are busy, helping to prepare a meal, helping to soothe someone or something (a dog? - they're good for the microbiome as well!) are all praise-worthy behaviors.

Read stories where the character experiences both positive and negative emotions, and point your son to/ask your son to identify the emotions. Keep it a bit lighter if you see that he is feeling too sad. (My son so upset with me and the book when Boxer died in Animal Farm that he started to cry and stormed out of the room. Oops... I didn't see that one coming. He was old enough to understand that it was a metaphor for communism, but the injustice was just too much.)

You mentioned that he has a stuffed puppy. You can make the puppy a character in imaginary adventures and let him soothe the puppy, or celebrate/laugh with, be sad with/for as well (or, at least, praise his actions when he makes attempts in those directions.) This should help him when these situations come up spontaneously in family members and friends.

The investment is important. Studies have linked even academics to emotional knowledge.

Take heart, though. It is never too late to improve empathy in children, as the Canadian school program Roots of Empathy shows. They have turned older children around and changed lives.

Edited to add: I didn't address an important part of your question. Hitting/biting/causing pain should never be tolerated, and should have immediate consequences (I know you favor reason, but that behavior is clearly not reasonable). As to his laughter afterwards, for now I would (completely) ignore it (thought it would hurt my feelings, too), as if it weren't happening. If it doesn't change in time, I'd address it more directly.

Just a story: My eldest thought head butting was hilarious at about 30 months. No amount of kind words and explanations made any difference - until he broke my nose. Luckily at first, I was in too much pain to cry out or say anything. Then the tears (involuntary) and the blood began to flow. I said, very matter-of-factly, "Look! You broke Mommy's nose" and waited a minute before getting something to sop up the blood. I wasn't angry. I wasn't upset. I just let him witness calmly the cause and effect. He doesn't remember it, but at least the head butting stopped!

The origins of empathic concern
Handbook of Moral Development Chap. 9 <- Interesting read
Emotion Knowledge as a Predictor of Social Behavior and Academic Competence in Children at Risk

Google scholar keywords: empathy, child, prosocial, social competence, emotional knowledge

  • Thanks. I'll look at the links when i'm at home (with my wife, who seems to take most of the head-butting - which he does as well, though fortunately not nose-breaking level yet). Overarousal (Assuming that means what I think it does) makes sense to some extent, though over-excitedness may be as much of the problem. – Joe Mar 27 '15 at 20:24
  • I find the distinction between empathy, sympathy, and distress interesting; in particular, because I don't have very much of a sense of empathy by that definition, but have sympathy and personal distress. I wonder how much of that is learned versus genetic. (IE, I don't really have a feeling that I emotionally understand what someone else is feeling, but do have sympathy, ie, a conscious understanding, and personal distress.) – Joe Mar 27 '15 at 20:26
  • @Joe - Interesting! My husband scores low on empathy tests, but can be quite sympathetic. The difference is that he doesn't feel bad when someone else does... it doesn't bother him, which has always amazed me. I have many times envied his ability not to let things bother him (only he doesn't make that choice; it just happens.) Some of the studies I read did address genetic variables, but sympathy - which correlates with prosocial behavior, seems environmental, not genetic. Which I found interesting and hopeful sounding. – anongoodnurse Mar 27 '15 at 20:41
  • It means it's very hard for me to say things to people feeling bad - say somebody's parent dies or something like that. I'm totally clueless, because while I sympathize (intellectually understand), I don't empathize, so I can only think of it as a formulaic response basically. I do have some form of personal distress - I hate watching some sitcoms where people have bad things happen to them or are stupid, I feel very uncomfortable - but it's not empathy, I just cringe at them doing stupid things... – Joe Mar 27 '15 at 20:48
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I remember the day my dad taught me empathy. I'm still very bad at connecting with how other people perceive my actions and so forth. When I was old enough to swim (8 maybe?) I did something mean, possibly kick my dad, and he told me I was in trouble and couldn't leave the pool until I apologized. I said sorry, but he didn't buy it so forced me to stay until I could tell him why I was sorry. My empathyless response was if I didn't say sorry I would get in trouble. After forever my dad told me I was supposed to be feel bad for hurting him, and that hurting him was wrong.

When you child is acting wrong and has no remorse you should punish him. At 3 this should be a small punishment, like timeout for 3 minutes or something. Then after the punishment ask him why it was wrong to do whatever he did. If he can't come up with the answer after a while, tell him so he will learn.

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