Developmental trajectories of empathic concern in infancy and their links to social competence in early childhood

Yael Paz*, Maayan Davidov, Tal Orlitsky, Ronit Roth-Hanania, Carolyn Zahn-Waxler

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Scopus citations


Background: Empathic concern is an important component of children’s social competence. Yet, little is known about the role of the development of concern for others during infancy as a predictor of social competence in early childhood. Methods: Israeli infants (N = 165, 50% girls) were observed five times, from 3 to 36 months. Empathic concern was assessed at ages 3–18 months using observations, and four components of social competence were assessed at 36 months using observations and teacher reports. Results: Four groups with distinct developmental trajectories of empathic concern from 3 to 18 months were identified: early-onset (starting high and increasing), low-empathy (starting low with minimal increase), rising (starting low and increasing considerably), and a very small group with a negative slope (decreasing). The first three trajectories differed on aspects of social competence at 36 months. Early-onset children continued to exhibit the highest empathic concern. Both the early-onset and rising groups had greater affective knowledge than the low-empathy group. Moreover, the rising group had better peer relations compared with low-empathy trajectory children. Conclusions: Children who exhibit high levels of empathy early in infancy are likely to show high social competence later on. However, even when initial empathy levels are low, subsequent growth in empathy from 3 to 18 months can occur, with positive consequences for children’s social competence at 36 months. Only children with low initial empathic concern and minimal growth across infancy are at increased risk of having poorer socioemotional capabilities in early childhood.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)762-770
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jul 2022

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This research was supported by a US‐Israel Binational Science Foundation Grant (No. 2011101) to M.D., C.Z‐W., and R.R‐H. Y.P. was supported by the Ariane de Rothschild Women Doctoral Fellowship. The authors are grateful to the families for their participation, and to the dedicated laboratory team for their contributions to data collection and coding. The authors have declared that they have no competing or potential conflicts of interest. Key points

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 Association for Child and Adolescent Mental Health.


  • empathic concern
  • empathy
  • social competence
  • trajectories


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