Exploring the importance of early care-giving experiences on children’s socio-emotional functioning: the role of empathy

Assignment type: Thesis
Author: Derek Hanley
Submitted: October 2021


The parent-child relationship is considered a critical context for children’s socio-emotional development. While it is understood that this relationship is interactive and bi-directional in nature, parenting practices and behaviours, specifically, parental socialisation styles, have been consistently linked to children’s development, including emotional competence and social skills. Empathy, which describes an innate capacity to understand and resonate with others’ emotional experiences, is regarded by some as being at the core of what it means to be fully human, as it is central to social interaction, lays a foundation for moral judgement, and acts as a precursor to prosocial behaviour. Evidence has shown that individual differences in child empathy are related to and affected by the socialisation practices of parents. Building upon this research, this thesis presents two related, but individual papers that aim to further our understanding of how early care-giving experiences influence children’s socio-emotional functioning, specifically empathy. Firstly, a systematic literature review was conducted to consider the association between the quality of the parent-child relationship, as defined by the indices of attachment security, parent warmth, and parental sensitivity, and the development of empathy in toddlers and pre-schoolers. 16 articles were included for review. Overall, the review highlights that the evidence-base exploring the association between child empathy and the quality of the parent-child relationship among toddlers and pre-schoolers is small and strikingly inconsistent. Put broadly, the most consistent associations were found in longitudinal studies with pre-schoolers where attachment security was linked with higher scores of empathy. Secondly, an empirical study was carried out to test a proposed mediational model, whereby lower empathy is a pathway between childhood maltreatment and peer relationship problems. Using a combination of parent-report, child-report measures, and behavioural measures, empathy and peer relations were assessed in a sample of maltreated (n = 29) and non-maltreated children (n = 82). Findings show that maltreated children scored significantly lower on parentreport measures of empathy and scored significantly higher on parent-report peer relationship problems than non-maltreated children. The behavioural data showed similar group level differences for child empathy, however, no differences were found for child-report peer relations. In terms of the proposed mediational model, empathy was found to mediate the relationship between maltreatment and poor peer relations. Taken together, both studies highlight the importance of early care-giving experiences on children’s socio-emotional functioning, specifically empathy. The implications of this are discussed broadly and within the context of educational psychology.

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