*Empathy preschoolers


“Individual Differences in Empathy Among Preschoolers:  Relation to Attachment History”

By Roberta Kestenbaum, Ellen A. Farber, L. Alan Sroufe

New Directions for Child Development

Vol 44, 1989, 51-64


“The ability to express emotions clearly,

to recognize others’ expressions of emotions,

and to react appropriately to them

are all important for accurate communication and regulation of relationships.  (Kestenbaum/ID/51)”

“…what an individual comes to understand about emotions in the self and others in early relationships may have an impact on later responding to emotional reactions of others.  (Kestenbaum/ID/51)”

EMPATHIC RESPONSE to “another’s emotional state

“…recognizing and experiencing the emotion of the other.  (Kestenbaum/ID/52)”

This is NOT easy for me to understand.  This is NOT the same thing as being attuned to the emotional needs of others – by “recognizing and experiencing the emotion of the other?”

“Individuals who in the past have had their emotional needs met (for example, through a caretaker’s sensitive and consistent responding) may be better attuned to the emotional needs of others

without confusing them with their own needs,

thus allowing for a truly empathic response.  (Kestenbaum/ID/52)”

This part, “without confusing” another’s emotional needs “with their own needs” is tricky.  I think a lot of problems develop when this gets screwed up.


Responding to another’s emotional state is not the same thing, to me, as responding to their emotional needs like these authors are saying.



++ “affective perspective taking”

cognitive orientation

“empathy as the knowledge or understanding of another’s feelings.  (Kestenbaum/ID/52)”

“affective perspective taking is necessary but not sufficient for empathy  (Kestenbaum/ID/52)”

++ empathy defined also “in strictly affective terms, as a vicarious affective response.  (Kestenbaum/ID/52)”

I want to understand this, as Schore says everyone with an insecure attachment has an empathy pathology.


So to have such a pathology, it is important to understand the term – like with the concept of emotions, what exactly are we even talking about?



++  “…in essence, both cognitive and affective elements are involved in this response.  (Kestenbaum/ID/52)”



“…an emotional and behavioral response to another’s emotional state, which is similar in affective tone and is based on the other’s circumstances rather than one’s own.  (Kestenbaum/ID/55)”


“…empathy is defined as

being able to discriminate the affective states of others, knowing how another feels, and vicariously experiencing the aroused emotion (Feshback, 1982; Underwood and Moore, 1982).

Similarly, Iannotti (1978) has defined empathy as an emotional response to the perspective of another.  (Kestenbaum/ID/52)”

“Hoffman (1978) suggests a broad definition of empathy, with the major criterion being that the individual’s affective response is more suited to the other individual’s situation than to his or her own circumstances.  (Kestenbaum/ID/52)”

These definitions say nothing about how a person who has empathy ACTS in response to this ability to discriminate affective states of others, etc.


Mother never did this for me.  Never.  I don’t think she was able to do it, period, so did not do it for my siblings, either.


The boundary issue becomes relevant when one cannot vicariously experience another’s aroused emotion – like a ventriloquist can throw his or her voice – but the source of the voice, or the emotion, lies in another person.




Some people’s emotions are too hard and too much for any other person to empathize with, especially when it comes to the feelings of those with a completely disorganized attachment.  We were hurt very badly.  That’s how we got these feelings in the first place.


What we need is to be comforted.  We can try to comfort ourselves.  That is all we could do in the first place when faced with the unsolvable paradox, the unsolvable problem.


But nobody is going to really empathize with us, and that is OK.  We need the feelings recognized and acknowledged, but attunement is probably way too difficult for anybody else to do for us.  I think we essentially know this, and it makes us feel very lonely and alone – just like we did back then.


Nobody can fix anybody else.  (Cure = “care of the soul”).  We need others to care about us, and care about the wound in our soul.


Living with this wound takes a lot out of us.  Maybe we don’t really have anything left to empathize with someone else with.




David is back from his vacation, and for the last two days I could not go over to the shop to see Ernie after I was done with work.  Fortunately yesterday he called me so I could go out with him in the evening ’cause he had to change a tire.  It was very sweet of him to call me and to take me along.


Today I didn’t get to see him at all, and all my pain is right back as if it had never been gone.  I should not be this sad, or this upset.  It isn’t right.  And I don’t know why, really.  Sure things are hard.  They have been hard.  I guess I have adjusted as best I could lately because at least I have been able to see him.



This feels like the same pain that I felt when I “broke through” to it when writing about the nosebleed.  This is deep and very old pain.  My mother did this to me.  I don’t know what part Ernie really plays.  He can go home to Suzi tonight.  I think when he went up to the county yard a little after 4 that if he missed me even a tiny bit as much as I miss him he would have taken me with him.


I can’t be reasonable about this.  Therefore, I suppose this is a reaction that bypasses the cortex.  What he said when I called him as usual when I left work is that he would invite me over but David was supposed to be back soon as Ernie had sent him to Tombstone.  Ernie said he would call me after David came back, and when he left.


I waited for Ernie’s call.  He never called.  When I called him he was on a run up to the county yard.  He said David never came back.


Reason should tell me that I know how Ernie leaves in such a hurry when he gets a call.  He obviously did not think about calling me to go along.


What good would that have done, anyway?  It’s always the same thing, even when I do get to see him.  I go home alone.  And that makes me sad, too – but not nearly this sad!




The experts talk about an amygdala response to threat that is automatic and bypasses the cortex.  What is this sadness response, then?  It is triggered just as easily, and really is much more painful.  At least with a fear response, a person just has to act – or try to.  It isn’t like this overwhelming sadness.


I thought I was better.  I haven’t had to feel this pain for a long time.  I don’t understand it.  How do I dissect this?  Take it apart and find the wound inside it all?


Having Ernie around all the time would not heal this wound – at least I don’t think so.  I think it is bottomless.


So all that would actually be accomplished if I stopped contact with Ernie is that eventually maybe this wouldn’t get triggered.  But I am terrified that it would be so hugely triggered to “end this” that I could not stand it.


This pain is huge, and very very real.




Is this one of those times when the “self soothing” is supposed to kick in?  This pain is being triggered because my attachment system is activated – and I can’t FIX IT by seeing Ernie today.  I so love being with him.  I so hate the entire situation.  It seems as unfair to me as was my mother’s abuse of me in the first place.  To be this attached and attracted to him.  To be so happy to see him and to be with him.  To be so deprived of his companionship, care, even thoughts of me – most of the time.


I am so happy when I am with him.  It feels ageless.  Like being with him happens in a special place, an ageless place and space.  I don’t understand that at all, either.


I do not understand why he did not call me to go with him at least to the county yard.  I ASSUME that it doesn’t matter to him one fucking bit if he sees me or not.  He doesn’t have to need me.  He has two others.


Having this happen today certainly lets me know this is not CURED.


I need to be able to deal with this pain myself – it is my pain, not his.


I think he might have some of the “vicarious doesn’t work” troubles because it is so hard for him to know I am hurting – like he feels my pain – so tricky.  That is not what empathy is.  He will do whatever he can not to feel that pain.  That’s why he ended this before.  He does not like to see me sad – though I don’t really understand why not.  He IS the one that makes the choice not to see me or be with me.  And it DOES make me sad.  But I should not be THIS sad.


I get to remember today that this is why I started writing this book, because of this pain.  Not understanding where it really came from or how to ease it, adjust it, regulate it.



And how does that fit into this, that emotions are not things, and do not take us over.  It FEELS like that is what they do.  It feels as if this sadness is very very real.





I cannot make it go away.  I cannot regulate it.  That is a very big problem!  And after this whole year of study, I still can’t!  That is scary, like it’s all been for nothing!


In my study of the Barrett article I want to understand how emotions evolve and develop for normal people – if I can even conceptualize that.  Because mine did not follow that process of development normally.




And being able to see Ernie lately, somewhat dependably, has made it bearable.  Feeling like I had at least that tiny bit of space and time and place in his life.


That is no doubt an illusion.


I was dependent on being able to see him, on our little schedule.  I TRUSTED that, and trusted that he wanted to see me, too.


This feels like the bottom fell out of my world.  I am not adjusting or ADAPTING.  I do not feel peaceful and calm and centered and even hopeful.  I also know that tomorrow is Friday, and weekends STILL have been really hard for me.  Really hard.




And I can’t even guess how he might be feeling.  He seemed really pleased to be able to see me for a little while last night, and I don’t think it was only because he knew it mattered to me.


But I don’t know.  I can’t KNOW or TRUST that I have a clue what someone else is feeling.




From the above definition — what I am having is an emotional response to not being able to see Ernie today – and it has taken me over, and it surprises me how sad I am.




It is sort of like a collapsing of time.  All the wonderful times I have been with him.  It is losing sight of the future – that I will see him again.


How is this related to that future sense – or lack of it?  How can one have trust or hope if there is no future?


If that is the case, if this pain and sadness and desperation is related, then it is a problem in part with my difficulties with having a sense of TIME.




So, do I have any new useful skills and knowledge now to help me?


I do know that my attachment system is activated.


It is normal for it to be activated when a person is distressed, but most people don’t get this upset this quickly or this intensely.  They can use things I don’t have to deal with the sadness.


Reason, balance, “self soothing,” and I do not mean using bad things.  I know I am hungry, so I will cook and eat something.  That is a good thing.



I know Ernie did not cause this.  I will not write a letter to him about how I feel.  I need to leave that alone.


Ernie did not cause my pain.


He didn’t even cause David to be a fucking asshole.  That’s David’s problem.


It does upset me terribly if David shows up and I am at the shop and have to run out the back door.  I am afraid of that — and any perspective I have on the future is that this is going to be the norm.


That’s a doomsday future.  I don’t know what it holds – really.


Try to involve the cortex is THOUGHT.




Right now I would say that this soul wound will never go away.  We need to recognize it for what it is, that it exists, where it came from, and the power it has to devastate us.


We need to know what is likely to trigger it, recognize it when it is triggered, know what aggravates it and what relieves it – us.


Looking for the balm for the wound, no doubt different for everyone – but we need the life enhancing choices and options.


Yet while I call this a soul wound, it is absolutely in our brain and in our body.




Just like my nosebleed, our soul wounds are the place we are bleeding to death.  We have to know how to stop the bleeding – like having a bleeding disorder (that killed my Dad).




Cindy is reading a book by Martha Stout on dissociation and the “myth of sanity.” She is very clear about the effects of stress chemicals on the brain – but then to realize the effect of those same powerful and toxic chemicals on an infant’s developing brain.




author mentions “emotional contagion” without clarifying how it can “contaminate” (my word) the response of empathy – I guess if a purely cognitive definition is used

“Another issue is whether, for a response to be empathic, an exact match of affect should be required or only a match to positive or negative tone…..Some responses, particularly those by young children, may be excluded not because of insufficient arousal, but because of immature cognitive and motoric abilities to produce an exact match.  (Kestenbaum/ID/52)”

If our emotions and their regulation did not get to develop normally, then we may well have “immature” abilities and cannot produce exact matches – or even close to them – therefore we cannot be empathic.


“This investigation is concerned with how the quality of early relationships predicts later responding to emotional distress….relationship experiences are internalized and carried forward to other relationships.  (Kestenbaum/ID/54)”

“The present study was undertaken to look at later effects of early relationships and to compare children who had secure attachment histories with children who had avoidant and resistant attachments.  Infants were tested at twelve and eighteen months of age with their mothers in the Ainsworth Strange Situation.  They were classified as securely attached, anxiously attached-avoidant, or anxiously attached-resistant.  (Kestenbaum/ID/54)”

“Because securely attached children presumably have had their emotional needs met as infants and have received responsive, empathic caregiving, they should have developed the capacity to readily respond empathically.  (Kestenbaum/ID/54)”

“In Bowlby’s (1973) terms, in the context of early relationship experiences, infants and young children develop inner working models of self and other.  This is more than the learning of roles; rather, children internalize the very nature of relationships themselves.  (Kestenbaum/ID/54)”


“Thus, in experiencing sensitive caregiving, the securely attached child not only learns to expect care, but more generally learns that when a person is in need, another responds empathically.  (Kestenbaum/ID/54)”

Isn’t this like modeling, where the child internalizes the modeling done to it by its caregivers?



“In sharp contrast, children who show avoidant patterns of attachment are thought to have experienced repeated rejection in times of emotional need….though they may become aroused at another’s distress, they will have no framework for responding adequately.  (Kestenbaum/ID/54)”

“They may defend against the feelings that are aroused.  Thus, avoidant children are most likely to appear unempathic, at times displaying attacking behavior or (Kestenbaum/ID/54) inappropriate affect.  (Kestenbaum/ID/55)”


“…children who have anxious-resistant attachment histories are thought to have experienced inconsistent care.  (Kestenbaum/ID/55)”

“In the face of strong feelings, they remain anxious, confused, and uncertain.  (Kestenbaum/ID/55)”

“They may show arousal and some responsivity, but because of their disorganization and anxiety, they have difficulty acting empathically.  (Kestenbaum/ID/55)”

Due to problems in maintaining distance between themselves and others, they may be confused as to who is experiencing the distress.  (Kestenbaum/ID/55)”

I think this is extremely significant and important.  It allowed my mother to diverge into her particular disorder, where she lacked the ability to vicariously experience another’s emotions – extreme empathy pathology.


In this study:

“Empathy was measured in naturally occurring situations of distress during free play in a preschool setting….we chose to focus only on reactions to others’ distress….Children’s responses to others’ distress were rated for the

degree of empathic responding.  To more clearly delineate differences between the groups, we also included

measures of inappropriate affective responding (anti-empathy) and

occurrences of blurring the boundaries between what is happening to another and what is happening to the self.  (Kestenbaum/ID/55)”




Matrix, matron and matter are all related to Latin word “matre”

This is making me think of an empathy matrix.


To accurately be a matrix I guess this would all have to be set up with columns.  I don’t know how to set it up so that it can reflect the interactional core of all of this.  I think the parameters would be something like this, including eleven parameters, each measured in degrees and each interacting with all of the others at the same time.


I can’t even do the math on how many potential interactive combinations this would be!


Thirteen Things to Think About:











+ 1.  Degree of accurate versus inaccurate perception of infant’s feelings by the mother.  Projection of her feelings onto the infant is a form of inaccurate perception.


+ 2.  Degree of accuracy of the mother’s perception and consciousness of her own feelings


+ 3.  Degree that the mother can set her own feelings aside when interacting with infant


+ 4.  Degree of accurate versus inaccurate perception of infant’s needs.  Projecting her needs onto the infant is a form of inaccurate perception.


+ 5.  Degree of accuracy of mother’s perception and consciousness of her own needs


+ 6.  Degree that mother can set her own needs aside when interacting with infant


+ 7.  Degree of genuine yet exaggerated-staged quality of emotional reaction in response to a young infant.  (This playful way is what an infant needs to grow its brain correctly.)


+ 8.  Degree of literal quality of emotional reaction in response to a young infant (Young infants cannot tolerate a direct and literal response to their feelings.  This response overwhelms and scares them.  I am not using literal to mean the same thing as genuine.)


+ 9.  Degree of appropriateness of response (expectations – whose need/emotion is it?)


+ 10.  Degree of intent to help – safe/benevolent


+ 11.  Degree of intent to harm – threat/malevolent.  Projection of an ulterior motive onto the infant that it has the intention of harassing the parent in any way is harmful.


+ 12.   Degree of availability and accessibility to infant (investment – attention – two edged sword if the interactions are traumatic and threatening).

+ 13.  Degree of consistency and dependability to infant (builds trust and hope or chronic fear)





Due to the condition of my mother’s mind, she never had a genuine interaction with any of her children.  Everything my mother thought, did or felt was from the “pretend mode” thinking place as she never left the magical world of her early childhood.


She could not, therefore, experience empathy with anyone.


I don’t think there is anyway to “fix” this.  It might be like color blindness.  If we don’t have empathy, don’t have mindsight, don’t have the ability to mentalize, it’s like not being able to see the color red.  And if a person is color blind, they cannot become a military pilot.  They must do something else.  And that something else might be “choice therapy.”




I could tell today when Ernie had to tow the car of a woman whose husband was hit by a speeding driver and killed 16 months ago that I could not shake the feelings I had inside of me after hearing her story – knowing that this is not a normal empathy process.  It is also why I cannot be a therapist.  I cannot keep another’s feelings separate from my own.


Yet also I need to realize that they give beta blockers to therapists going into severe trauma situations.  How much do they NOT know about trauma and about empathy and its process and costs?




Mean age of the 24 children in the study, split equally between girls and boys, was 48.7 months.  Children were part of a longitudinal study at the University of Minnesota.

I don’t understand how they could just leave the children with insecure attachments alone knowing their lives were being screwed up.  This is a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul.  I also note that they never mention insecure disorganized attachment.  Did those mothers not participate in the overall study?


B – securely attached

A – anxious-avoidant

C – anxious-resistant

“When they were twelve months old and eighteen months old, they participated with their mothers in the Ainsworth Strange Situation to assess the quality of the mother-infant interaction.  In this procedure, the infant has the opportunity to explore a novel situation with and without the mother present, and with and without a stranger present.  Based primarily upon behaviors when the child is reunited with his or her mother after brief separations, the children are classified into one of three groups.  (Kestenbaum/ID/56)”

“Securely attached (B) infants respond positively to mother’s reappearance and can use the other as a source of comfort if distressed.  (Kestenbaum/ID/56)”

“Anxious-avoidant (A) infants actively avoid their mothers when they return and do not respond differentially to mother and stranger.  (Kestenbaum/ID/56)”

“Anxious-resistant (C) children become very distressed during separations but on reunion are not readily calmed.  They often show anger but resist efforts to comfort them.  (Kestenbaum/ID/56)”

they have a table of empathy and anti-empathy scales used to score the children on p. 57


teacher’s reports:

items that “form a coherent factor, named empathic relatedness (Kestenbaum/ID/58)”

Is considerate and thoughtful of other children.

Is helpful and cooperative.

Shows concern for moral issues (for example, reciprocity, fairness, and the welfare of others)

Uses and responds to reason

Tends to arouse liking and acceptance in adults

Shows a recognition of the feelings of others; is empathic

Tends to give, lend, and share

Can be trusted; is dependable.


“There were few responses of anti- (Kestenbaum/ID/58) empathy, but of the twelve that were observed, nine incidents were by children with anxious-avoidant attachment histories, two incidents were by children with anxious-resistant attachment histories, and one incident was by a child with a secure attachment history.  (Kestenbaum/ID/59)”

“Six instances were observed in which children appeared to blur the boundaries of who was transgressed.  Of these, four involved children with anxious-resistant attachment histories, and two involved children with secure attachment histories.  (Kestenbaum/ID/59)”

measured children in distress

“…behavioral responses, such as approach or vocalizations of concern, were observed much more often than emotional response…..Thus, it is still not clear what the relation is between affective and behavioral indexes of empathy.  (Kestenbaum/ID/59)”

“…teachers can capture affective-behavioral dimensions of empathy in the Q sort.  (Kestenbaum/ID/60)”


“…if prototypic models of self, other, and relationships are forged in early attachment experiences, it is expectable that children experiencing responsive care not only will be able to seek care later, but will be emotionally responsive to others as well.  (Kestenbaum/ID/60)”

“…we consider this work on empathy to be strong confirmation of Bowlby’s theory.  (Kestenbaum/ID/60)”


“It could be argued that the empathic behavior that we are seeing is a product of current parenting.

Bowlby’s theory states explicitly that development is always a product of past history and current circumstances.

Yet an infant that does not experience empathy gets a different brain.

If a child’s circumstances had changed dramatically, an early history of secure attachment would not guarantee empathic responsiveness.

And yet their brain did form secure circuits.



In this sense, early secure attachment is not seen as causing later empathy.  (Kestenbaum/ID/60)”

Nonetheless, early attachment assessments are viewed as reflecting a developmental process commonly associated with individual differences in empathy.  (Kestenbaum/ID/60)”


“The quality of the attachment relationship in infancy was indeed related to empathic responding in preschoolers.  Specifically, children with secure attachment histories were  more likely to have a greater empathic response (behaviorally and emotionally) to another’s distress than were children with avoidant histories.  (Kestenbaum/ID/60)”

“How an individual is accustomed to interacting with early relationships, particularly with a caregiver, will be carried forward as expectations in later relationships.  This creates a self-perpetuating cycle [expectations] in which an individual who expects to interact with others in the same (Kestenbaum/ID/60) way as in previous relationships creates a situation that will realize that expectation.  (Kestenbaum/ID/61)”

creates a situation that will realize that expectation – I don’t see how they are explaining this part of things.  The children here reacted to situations as they existed.  They did not create them.


“Thus, children with secure attachment histories have in the past received consistent, sensitive caregiving in times of distress.  These children come to develop a sense of trust and identify with caregivers who respond empathically toward them.  Because their own emotional needs are presumably satisfied, they develop the capacity to respond emotionally, sensitively, and empathically toward others in later relationships.  (Kestenbaum/ID/61)”

“Children with avoidant attachment histories, on the other hand, experienced rejection from their caregivers in times of emotional need.  Without an empathic model to identify with, they are less capable of responding appropriately to another’s distress.  [This is more than having a model – these patterns of responding and processing information are built into the brain circuitry of these children!] As infants, they did not experience consistent emotional support, and later in life, they do not seek it.  Accustomed to avoiding emotions [and this related to their bodies also.  Is this a form of dissociation?] , they continue to do so in later relationships, by not responding emotionally or by responding inappropriately.  Of the twelve incidents of anti-empathy observed in this study, nine were by children with avoidant histories.  The differences observed between the secure group and the avoidant group are probably not due to differences in cognitive abilities such as affective perspective taking, since responding maliciously also requires the ability to realize that another person is experiencing emotional distress.  (Kestenbaum/ID/61)”

“As infants, resistant children had trouble being comforted, and it was expected that as preschoolers they would continue to have difficulties controlling their own affect.  Based on their past histories of inconsistent, ambivalent relationships, it was predicted that children with anxious-ambivalent [they are being inconsistent with their labels here] attachment histories would be

too preoccupied with their own discomfort to react as empathically as the secure group or as unempathically

as the avoidant group.  Statistically, however, the resistant group could not be differentiated from either of the other two groups on present measures of empathy, though their average score fell between those of the other two groups, as predicted.  (Kestenbaum/ID/61)”


“Although the anxious-resistant group could not be differentiated by empathy measures, the observations of children who seemed to have

trouble separating another’s distress from their own suggest a more appropriate way of beginning to distinguish this group.  Although only six instances occurred of children

appearing to blur the boundaries of who was experiencing distress, four of them were by children with anxious-resistant attachment histories.  If anxious-resistant children have more

difficulty differentiating between the self’s and other’s emotional states, they will experience the other’s emotional state as their own personal distress and be


less likely to respond empathically…..

Behaviors indicating boundary problems, such as seeking comfort from teachers when another is distressed, should be explored more fully.  (Kestenbaum/ID/61)”

need to “look at the extent of the blurring as well as the cognitive aspects of differentiating the self from other  (Kestenbaum/ID/62)”  — suggestions for future research

It would seem that this is all tied to their preoccupation with their own discomfort.


This would cause them to have difficulties separating another’s distress from their own.


I would suggest that there is a direct link between their inconsistent experiences and this boundary blurring, as well as with the preoccupation.


Because of their preoccupation and blurred boundaries, they will not SEE another’s distress —  so similar to the avoidant group, there would be nothing to respond TO.


See Siegel’s (I believe it was) description of communication patterns and rhythms.

















One thought on “*Empathy preschoolers

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