My son is 18 months old. He finds it hilarious to make our cats howl by pulling their tails. I try to discourage this by firmly saying "no" and "do not pull tails" until he stops (which he quickly does), then reminding him that it gives the kitties an "owie" (a word I think he understands) and that we love our kitties and do not want to hurt them. But he doesn't seem to be affected by this. I think the only reason he stops is because he wants to please me, not out of any concern for the cats.

At what age do children develop empathy? Can it be taught?

2 Answers 2


First off, please don't worry! This is natural at this age and all children are like this in toddlerhood. My son, who is now 4, did the same thing with our cat at that age, and now he is very gentle and wonderful with cats. (My one year old has now entered that stage; our cat has passed, but she pulls on my 4 year old's hair and she finds it hilarious.)

Children start to show signs of empathy at about 2, but it increases gradually with age. At 3-4 a child should begin to be able to articulate how they are feeling and identify feelings in other people.

So far you are doing great. Getting him to respond to your emotions is actually a sign that he is already developing empathy. What you have to remember is our empathy apparatus is designed to understand what other people are feeling, not animals. Children will recognise when other people are upset or hurt more easily, by looking at their facial expressions. It's a lot harder for them to understand when an animal is in pain or doesn't like something, because that requires a lot more abstract thinking.

Another thing to do to help develop empathy in your child as he gets older is to help them identify their feelings, and the feelings of others. For instance, if they are crying, you can help them identify the emotion ("sad" or "angry") and you see other children crying, identify that emotion, "that little boy is sad" and then make a sad face yourself. This helps show them that you are sad that the other boy is sad, so you are demonstrating empathy to him.

To put my animal behaviour hat on, make sure that your cat always has a place to escape if your son is being rough for him. For our cat, we put in wall mounted shelves that she could climb onto and be well out of reach. This is good for the animal's mental health so they don't feel trapped. (It will also prevent incidents like scratching which can happen if a cat feels cornered). It'll also teach your son what kinds of behaviours the cat does and does not like as she'll make her feelings known by escaping!

  • 2
    Araneae, thanks for the good answer. I agree 100%. It would become a great answer with a few links to sources where you refer to things that are well researched, such as your second paragraph!
    – Joe
    Jun 29, 2016 at 14:25

In my experience, as well as in research publications, very young toddlers (2 yo) develop empathy skills. See the reference below as well as plenty of other papers using Google search for: pubmed promoting empathy in toddlers. Early signs of empathy (even the sense of fairness!) can be detected in very young babies even earlier. At 18 months, the empathy skills I observe are rudimentary, inconsistent and directed mostly toward family members and caretakers - rarely pets. So your example is not surprising.

Empathy develops "naturally", but also can be taught, with various degrees of success. My personal method of choice to teach empathy at this age is by positive example showing the desired behavior and praising when I see it. After the child hurts someone (here, a cat), I rarely punish the child. Instead, I demonstrate the behavior I want to promote: I sit down to face my child at the eye level, pet the cat gently, and look at the child, saying "See: gently... gently... Good cat... We love the cat... We pet here gently". Every time the child behaves well with the cat, I praise her and hug the child, and say "I like it when you pet the cat gently".

The truly enlightened sense of empathy, with good understanding that every sentient creature likes to be free, and not pulled by its "tail", is exceedingly rare in adults - to say nothing about toddlers.


Huang, H., Su, Y., & Jin, J. (2016). Empathy-Related Responding in Chinese Toddlers: Factorial Structure and Cognitive Contributors. Infant and child development, 26(3), e1983. doi:10.1002/icd.1983

According to Hoffman's (1987) theoretical model of empathy development, the early years, especially the second year of life, are critical for empathy development. During the first 3 years, children become other‐oriented rather than self‐oriented when exposed to others' distress, and it seems that this transition takes place in the second year. Zahn‐Waxler and colleagues conducted significant longitudinal research that examined a variety of empathy‐related responses, and their studies also supported the idea that the second year is the most critical period for empathy development. They found that toddlers at this age are capable of displaying a variety of empathy‐related behaviours, and there are significant individual differences in the development of empathy.

  • Nice answer! +1 and welcome! Apr 11, 2019 at 20:59

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