Contagious distress and your toddler

It’s bad enough that Baby can catch your case of the sniffles, but when you’re sad or upset, the last thing you want may be their sad, upsetness on top of your own. Fortunately or unfortunately, though, they have probably always been a little more tuned into your emotions, and to those of their other caregivers, than they have with most people.

Developing empathetic responses

It’s at the beginning of the second year that toddlers often start to show empathetic responses to the distress of other babies and toddlers, but by that time, they’ve probably been responding to the emotions of adults for much longer. A significant part of this may be instinctive – many babies can mirror the facial expressions of adults in their first few months of life, though a recent study suggests that babies don’t start consciously choosing to mirror expressions until they’re at least 6 months old.

Mirroring may be more of a survival instinct than true empathy, though – babies and toddlers may become wary of toys, objects, and situations that they’ve seen other toddlers or adults show fearful responses to. Babies start to use social referencing, or looking to others to figure out how they want to respond to a situation, around 6 months old. Social referencing eventually works with mirroring, a growing understanding of what emotions are, and finally, the full understanding of their individual identities, separate from those of their parents or guardians (which may not be fully developed until around 24 months) to create empathy, or the ability to understand what others’ emotional responses to a given situation might be.

You’ve probably noticed Baby doing social referencing – when they fall down, does they look over to see how you respond before they either do or doesn’t burst into tears? They are waiting for your cue about the right way to handle the situation. Social referencing is related to contagious distress, though it’s not the same thing, and both contribute to their eventual development of empathy.

Handling contagious distress

Contagious distress happens when your toddler picks up on the mood of someone else, and starts to get upset with them. This is an important part of their still-developing sense of empathy, but more than that, it’s an issue that’s probably going to keep showing up again and again throughout their life – few adults keep all of their emotions completely unaffected by the emotions of the people around them.

If your toddler seems to be getting overwhelmed by another child or nearby adult’s emotions, distracting them by taking them to a new location, even if that just means taking a quick walk around the block, can help calm them down. If it’s your distress they are picking up on, that can be a little bit trickier, but they are also learning about how to deal with strong emotions by watching you. Keeping your calm, and working through strong emotions, is a great model for Baby about how to handle them, both now and in their future.

  • Daniel Goleman. “Researchers Trace Empathy’s Roots to Infancy.” New York Times. New York Times. March 28 1989. Retrieved May 26 2017.
  • Claire Lerner, Rebecca Parlakian. “How to Help Your Child Develop Empathy.” Zero to Three. ZERO TO THREE: National Center for Infants, Toddlers, and Families. February 1 2016. Retrieved May 26 2017.
  • Sarah R. Nichols, Margarita Svetlova, Celja A. Bronwell. “Toddlers’ Understanding of Peers’ Emotions. Journal of Genetic Psychology. 171(1): 35-53. January-March 2010. Retrieved May 26 2017.
  • Sarah R. Nichols, Margarita Svetlova, Celja A. Bronwell. “The role of understanding and empathetic disposition in young children’s responsiveness to distress in parents and peers.” Cognition, Brain, Behavior. 13(4): 449-478. Retrieved May 26 2017.
  • Janine Oostenbroek, et al. “Comprehensive Longitudinal Study Challenges the Existence of Neonatal Imitation in Humans.” Current Biology. 26(10): 1334-1338. Retrieved May 26 2017.
  • “Child Development Tracker: Social and Emotional Development.” PBS Parents. PBS. Retrieved May 26 2017. 
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