Marriage and Family Therapist
Cyndi Sarnoff-Ross is a licensed psychotherapist with almost twenty years of clinical experience in the fields of clinical psychology and organizational management. She has worked extensively with a wide variety of…
Is There a Connection Between Fearlessness and Empathy in Preschoolers?
Posted in Parenting Presc... by Cyndi Sarnoff-Ross on Mar 13, 2013
Some children are inherently timid and others are born risk takers. But what about the kid who runs headlong into their peer at top speed as they are racing towards the play structure and when they topple their friend they barely look back? Is it possible that their behavior is indicative of a larger, more socially unacceptable problem?

Dr. Inbal Kivenson Bar-On, out of the University of Haifa in Israel, has reported in a new study that children, 3 to 4 years old, who show high levels of fearlessness may also prove to be highly aggressive and lack empathy. Dr. Kivenson Bar-On studied 80 children in various settings including home, school, and the lab. She looked at degree and propensity for fearlessness, which occurs on a continuum, along with other emotional and social traits. She observed these children at the beginning and end of one year.

The research determined that those children who appeared relatively fearless in certain situations; such as separation from parents, exposure to loud startling noises, and a jack-in-the-box had trouble identifying a fear response in others. These kids were highly social and easily recognized facial expressions in others such as anger, surprise, sadness, and happiness but an expression of fear was often lost on them. They did not seem to react to their peers’ emotional distress.

The research paper goes on to say that these highly fearless preschoolers may be at higher risk for antisocial behaviors and could have later problems with morality. Even though these children tended to be easygoing and friendly, they struggled to pick up on social cues that signal distress in others which directly correlates to empathy.

This research is interesting but I would caution anyone reading this or the original study to be careful not to paint these kids with too broad a brush. There are degrees of fearlessness and without a deeper understanding of all of the variables, there is a danger of labeling a child as having a potential problem in the future when in fact, they may simply be secure enough to take risks.

I have seen children over the years that display high levels of fear and very low levels of empathy and vise-versa. While my observations are only anecdotal, and not the result of a larger study, I think clinicians and parents alike should interpret this new information carefully lest they misinterpret a child’s carefree nature or daredevil behavior as something potentially deviant.

- Cyndi


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