Imprinting Empathy in the Early Years: Associations with Caregivers’ Emotion-Related Beliefs and Practices

By Neda Senehi, MA

The second year of life is a period for significant growth in empathy-related behaviors including prosocial behaviors (e.g. sharing, helping, comforting others in distress), empathic concern or affective expression of concern (e.g. facial expressions), and cognitive attempts to understand others’ internal states (Knafo, Zahn-Waxler, Van Hulle, Robinson, & Rhee, 2008; Zhan-Waxler, Robinson, & Emde, 1992).  Throughout childhood, empathy enables children to engage in socially appropriate and adaptive peer interactions and contributes to overall iStock_000058695672_Fullmental health and functioning. However, recent research suggests that emergence of affective and cognitive indicators of empathy are present as early as 8 to 10 months of age (Roth-Hanania, Davidov, & Zahn-Waxler, 2011), emphasizing the significance of the early months in life for the emergence and development of empathy-related behaviors.

The quality of the parent-child relationship has been linked to early expressions of concern for others. Toddlers, who display higher empathy-related behaviors, such as concern for others’ distress, have experienced more contingent and sensitive maternal responsiveness as infants (Spinrad & Stifter, 2006).  Parents scaffold children’s empathy-related behaviors through multiple processes including modeling and social interactions. Parents, who are aware of their children’s sadness and anger and validate their children’s negative emotions, tend to use emotion talk, such as labeling their children’s negative emotions, and to facilitate problem solving. These parents are said to act similar to a coach and are referred to as emotion coaches (Gottman, Fainsilber-Katz & Hooven, 1996).  Conversely, parents who believe sadness and anger are harmful emotions tend to encourage denial and avoidance of such emotions in their children and adopt a somewhat dismissive style in their responsiveness to negative emotions, which may be maladaptive in spite of good intentions.  Parental coping with children’s fear, sadness, and anger include positive strategies such as encouragement of emotional expression, or negative strategies such as punishment and minimization of negative emotions. These parenting behaviors are related to children’s ability to express concern for others in distress and help alleviate others’ pain (Davidov & Grusec, 2006).

Mentalization-related attributes, such as mind-mindedness (i.e., making mind-related comments about infants’ intentions and behaviors) and mental state talk (i.e., using language that describes wishes, thoughts, and feelings including words such as want, need, sad, happy, think, remember) in conversations with children, have been associated with children’s ability to accurately perceive beliefs, intentions, and emotions in others (Meins et al., 2002; Taumoepeau & Ruffman, 2006). Also, children’s own use of mental state language is an essential tool used to understand and share significant experiences with others (Fivush, & Baker-Ward, 2005). Thus, parenting behaviors such as parents’ emotion coaching and their mind-minded and mental state comments are likely related to very young children’s empathy-related behaviors.

Research Questions

In Study 1, we examined the ways in which maternal beliefs about sadness and anger, as well as coping with children’s negative emotions, contribute to preschoolers’ expressions of prosocial behaviors.

In Study 2, we investigated the contributions of maternal emotion coaching beliefs and toddlers’ internal state language to toddlers’ expressions of empathy. This is important, first, because low-income children are at higher risk for poor social-emotional outcomes. Second, limited attention has been given to the study of mental state language in children younger than 3-5 years.

Overview of Study Methods

Study 1 was conducted at the Michigan State University Child Development Laboratories. In this study of 37 mothers and preschoolers, (MomAge = a mean of 34 years, SD = 5.77; ChildAge = a mean of 52.6 months, SD= 8.43) we have assessed maternal beliefs about their children’s experience of sadness and anger with the Maternal Emotional Styles Questionnaire (Lagacé-Séguin & Coplan, 2005).  This questionnaire includes subscales that assess emotion coaching beliefs (i.e. the parent encourages and supports the child’s expression of emotions) and emotion dismissing beliefs (i.e. the parent disregards the child’s expressions of emotions). Additionally, we assessed the range of strategies for responding to children’s negative emotions via the Coping with Children’s Negative Emotion Scale (Fabes, Eisenberg, & Bernzweig, 1990).  Coping strategies included focusing with the child on the problem at hand, encouraging the child’s expression of emotion, minimizing the child’s emotions, punishing the child for the expression of negative emotions, and, finally, mothers becoming distressed themselves. Children’s empathy was assessed using the Empathy Questionnaire (Rieffe, Ketelaar, & Wiefferink, 2010) consisting of three subscales related to Emotion Contagion, Attention to Others’ Feelings, and Prosocial Behaviors. Currently, we provide preliminary results focused on maternal emotion beliefs, their emotion coping strategies, and children’s prosocial behaviors.

Study 2 utilized data from a larger social-emotional curriculum development and evaluation study (Brophy-Herb et al., 2005). In this study of 167 mothers and toddlers (MomAge = mean of 27 years, SD = 7.67; ChildAge = mean of 18.69 months, SD = 8.97), we assessed maternal beliefs about their children’s experience of sadness and anger with the Maternal Emotional Styles Questionnaire (Lagacé-Séguin & Coplan, 2005), and the empathy subscale of the Infant-Toddler Social-Emotional Assessment (ITSEA; Carter & Briggs-Gowan, 2000). We also asked mothers to respond to a list of words representing mental state language and tell us which words their toddlers knew and understood.  Specifically, we asked mothers to comment on the total number of cognitive state mental words (e.g. words like think and know) and emotion action words (e.g. words like crying and smiling) the child knew and understood.


Study 1.  Multiple regression analyses showed that maternal emotion coaching beliefs were significantly related to mothers’ emotion-focused reactions to children’s expressions of negative emotions (β = .53, p = .005) and to their problem-focused reactions (β = .70, p = .019). These findings suggest that when mothers believe that sadness and anger are important emotions to validate and process with their children, they are more likely to focus on the emotional content of their children’s challenging daily emotional experiences and, subsequently, act in more emotionally-comforting ways. These parents also facilitate their children’s problem-solving skills as a coping mechanism when expressing strong emotions. Our results further revealed that maternal emotion-dismissive beliefs were significantly related to mothers’ minimizing reactions (β =. 84, p = .000) suggesting that parents who believe negative emotions are harmful tend to minimize their children’s expressions of sadness, fear, and anger by asking their children to ignore their emotional experiences. Comments such as “You’re fine.  Stop crying.” minimize the child’s experience of the emotion.  Consistent with our hypothesis, mothers’ distressed reactions in response to their children’s negative emotions were significantly and negatively associated with children’s prosocial behaviors (β = – 0.25, p = .011).

Study 2.  Multiple regression analysis revealed that, after controlling for the child’s age, sex, and maternal cumulative risk (e.g. poverty, low education, welfare receipt, lack of support, young age at entry into parenthood), the total number of emotion action words toddlers knew and understood (e.g., cry, hurt) (β = 0.03, p = .000), and the total number of cognitive words (e.g., know, remember) (β = 0.29, p = .000), were significantly related to mothers’ reports of their toddlers’ expressions of empathy. Furthermore, mothers’ emotion coaching beliefs were significantly related to toddlers’ empathy (r = .228, p = .01).


Study 1 results highlight the important role that parents’ individual beliefs about negative emotions play in their approach to processing children’s negative emotions, which maybe important contributors to children’s capacity to tolerate negative emotions in self and others. Furthermore, our results suggest that a parent’s own capacity to regulate his or her own distress when faced with their children’s intense emotional distress helps to facilitate children’s motivation to help others in distress. A parent who becomes distressed or responds to the child’s negative emotions with anger or anxiety is modeling such emotional responses.  Moreover, the parent is likely missing opportunities to support the child’s development of important regulatory skills that may contribute to building a capacity for empathy and prosocial behaviors.

Study 2 findings support the notion that for toddlers under 24 months, the ability to know and understand mental state language may be an important component of their capacity to understand others’ mental states and express empathic concern. Consequently, facilitating mental state talk in toddlers, especially words describing emotional expressions and cognitive states, might serve as a linguistic foundation for their understanding of others’ mental states and expression of concern for their distress.

Key Implications for Practice

  • Promoting parents’ comfort with young children’s expressions of strong emotions may help parents to respond in emotionally-supportive ways to their children and may help parents’ scaffold children’s growing capacities to respond with empathy to others.
  • Parents can facilitate empathy-related behaviors by commenting on infants’ and toddlers’ behaviors using mental state language that reflect children’s internal mental states (i.e. their feelings, intentions, goals, and desires).

For more information about this study contact  Neda Senehi at


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