Predicting externalizing behavior in toddlerhood from early individual differences in empathy

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

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

19 Scopus citations


Background: From middle childhood onward, there is often a negative link between empathy and externalizing behavior problems. Patterns at younger ages are still unclear, with mixed findings of no association, negative associations, and positive associations. This study examines links between empathy and externalizing problems, beginning in infancy. Methods: A community sample of infants (N = 165) was assessed for empathy at 3, 6, 12, 18, and 36 months, using behavioral observations. Externalizing problems were reported at 18 months (by mothers) and 36 months (by mothers and daycare teachers). Results: Boys showed more externalizing problems than girls. For boys, negative associations between empathy and externalizing appeared, particularly with teacher reports. For girls, there were positive associations between empathy and externalizing, which weakened with age. For both genders, empathy at ages 3, 6, and 18 months appeared to protect against increases in externalizing from 18 to 36 months. Conclusions: The role of empathy in the development of early externalizing depends on both gender and age; toddler boys’ externalizing may more typically stem from low empathy, whereas girls’ early externalizing appears to be underlain by heightened sensitivity and unregulated or assertive approach attempts.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)66-74
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2021

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020 Association for Child and Adolescent Mental Health


  • Empathy
  • aggression
  • behavior problems
  • gender


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