Children learn cooperation, caring and empathy from their parents and caregivers in securely attached, loving and trusting relationships.

Secure attachment leads to healthy psychosocial development and is a protective factor guarding against the development of antisocial behavior. It is also associated with fostering important prosocial values, attitudes, and behavior: empathy, caring, compassion, kindness, and morality.

The family, of course, is most influential in the child’s social and moral development, because it provides the initial learning environment. Socialization involves the transmission to the child of social and moral codes by the family or other agents of society (e.g., school). The child acquires, by learning and identification in the early attachment relationships, both the content of the parents’ moral code and a willingness to act in accordance with those rules. When the family does not promote secure attachment and appropriate socialization experiences, as is the case with abuse, neglect, or multiple out-of-home placements and caregivers, the child is at risk for developing not only conduct disorders, but also more pervasive anti-social tendencies.

This does not intend to imply that children who are neglected or abused will become bad people. Even as they grow older children, teens and adults can learn pro-social values in loving homes, healing environments and through therapeutic interventions. The earliest influences from family are the strongest, but they are by no means the only ones.

How does secure attachment promote the learning of empathy and the ideals of right human conduct?

Empathy and morality are learned in the context of safe and secure attachment relationships through four psychological processes:

  • Modeling by parents or other attachment figures,
  • Internalizing the values and behavior of parents or other attachment figures,
  • Experiencing synchronicity and reciprocity in early attachment relationships, and
  • Developing a positive sense of self.


Learning prosocial or antisocial values and behavior is a function of the nature of the caregiver-child relationship and the modeling provided. Simply stated, empathic parents, rear empathic children. Research has found that children show signs of empathy as young as 1 year old, and by age 2, show concern for a peer in distress. Children with histories of secure attachment during infancy were found to be more caring toward peers and more likely to be sought out as playmates by age 3 1/2, as compared to children with insecure/anxious attachments. At 4 and 5 years old, securely attached children were more caring and compassionate and had the best friendships, while avoidantly attached children were more often cruel, taking pleasure in a peer’s distress. These same patterns of empathy and friendships were found to continue through adolescence and into adulthood.

Parents who provide a balance of discipline, warmth, and positive experiences, are more likely to rear children who are empathic and cooperative with others (Eisenberg & Mussen 1989). Four- and 5-year-olds were found to display more empathy with peers when their mothers used reasoning techniques with them to teach compassion and sensitivity. In contrast, children were less empathic when their mothers used negative control practices, such as threats (Miller, Eisenberg, & Gular 1989). Parents’ modeling of empathy and altruism influences their children’s lifelong altruism. A study of 162 volunteers at a Minneapolis telephone crisis counseling center found that those most likely to break their commitment and leave the agency quickly reported lower levels of parental altruism in their family of origin (Murray 1996). Thus, parents who model caring and empathy are most likely to have empathic children, and empathy is one of the building blocks that contribute to prosocial morality.


The second psychological process that contributes to developing empathy and morality is internalization. Internalization involves the learning of standards of conduct, not merely obeying rules; i.e., developing a moral inner voice. Secure attachment involves internalizing prosocial values and behaviors, such as caring, compassion, kindness, and fairness. Securely attached children have an inner voice that guides them in the direction of social behavior, providing self-control over selfish and aggressive impulses. Children with relational trauma have often internalized antisocial standards, such as selfishness, violence, sadistic power and control, and dishonesty. Their inner voice, based on lack of trust and prior maltreatment, does not provide a viable conscience or feeling of remorse.

During a child’s first years, internalization is based on compliance: the child’s desire to please the parent and the distress experienced when the parent is unhappy with them (e.g., “sharing is good because mommy said so”). This initial disposition toward compliance is critical for later development and is lacking in children with attachment disorder, due to their avoidant and fearful reaction to attachment figures. When internalization actually occurs, the child does not behave well only to receive a reward or avoid punishment, but now has the ability to judge their own behavior. Children with an attachment disorder always need external structure, because they have not developed this ability. Additionally, securely attached children can express love for their parents by following their rules (“I want to make you feel good because I care about you; you are good, therefore, your rule must be good”). Children with attachment disorder do not generally experience the necessary trust and safety to feel and express love, and are inclined to act out anger through oppositional and controlling behaviors.

Children go through five predictable states as they internalize parental values and develop a conscience. The attachment figure becomes an internalized object, the internal compass to help the child navigate through experiences in the world:

  • Stage One (12-27 months). The child thinks, “I want it, I’ll take it.” This represents primary process thinking; no thought to consequences, consideration of danger, or understanding of the feelings of others.
  • Stage Two (2-3 years). The child thinks, “I would take it, but my parents will be upset with me.” Parents seem threatening and intimidating because of their size and capabilities. The child begins to show primitive causative thinking; would “take it” if the parents were not present.
  • Stage Three (3-5 years). The child thinks, “I would take it but my parents will find out.” The child is showing causative thinking, thinking things through, and weighing the risks of his or her actions.
  • Stage Four (6-7 years). The child thinks, “I would take it, but if my parents find out, they would be disapproving.” The child’s behavior is now being influenced by internal control; more connected to others, caring about how they feel, wanting to do the “right thing.”
  • Stage Five (8-11 years). The child thinks, “I want it, but don’t’ feel good about doing things like that.” The child’s internalization is complete; his or her own moral values have developed based on attachment to parents and society, and he or she understands not only self-interest, but also the good of the group.


The third aspect of secure attachment that fosters empathy and morality involves synchronicity and reciprocity. This is the way in which the primary attachment figure is finely attuned to the signals, needs, and emotions of the infant and developing child, and the ongoing give-and-take nature of the relationship. Children of sensitive, accepting, and cooperative mothers were found to show signs of internalizing prosocial standards and were more cooperative and self-controlled by 2 years of age (Stayton, Hogan & Salter-Ainsworth 1971; Londerville & Main 1981). The same qualities of parenting that foster secure attachment (sensitive, attuned, affectionate, and consistently available caregiving) also encourage the child to follow and internalize the parent’s model. The child is in-sync with the parent and, therefore, learning to be aware of the feelings and needs of another person.


The route to caring for others always begins with a solid sense of self. A strong and positive self-identity, with clear boundaries between self and others, is the fourth necessary psychological process. During the second year the child typically becomes increasingly oppositional (terrible 2s), reflecting their initial efforts to be independent and autonomous. When there is a solid foundation of secure attachment, this transitional phase is managed and transcended without major negative or long-lasting consequences. In Winnicott’s (1965) terms, the parent provides a “holding environment;” a safe and secure context with healthy boundaries and support for appropriate forms of self-control and emotional expression. The child with attachment disorder, conversely, lacks this solid and secure foundation and has a weak and negative sense of self, with blurred or violated self-other boundaries. The negativity and defiance characteristic of the second year become pervasive and chronic, as the child assumes a controlling, fearful, and punitive orientation towards others. There is no place for empathy, compassion, or kindness, as the child fights to survive in a world perceived as threatening.

If you are concerned about how your child’s early attachment situation has affected their abilities to empathize and care for others, we are here to help. The clinicians at Evergreen Psychotherapy Center can teach you and your child to build a securely attached relationship that will promote pro-social behaviors and attitudes.