Empathy may play a role in the development and maintenance of social anxiety, but the relationship between empathy and social anxiety in children remains unclear. The present study investigated the relationships between the three constructs of empathy (i.e., cognitive empathy, positive empathy, and negative empathy) and social anxiety in childhood, examined the moderating role of mother-child conflict and peer rejection and explored gender differences in the moderating effects. The participants were 670 children aged 9 and 12 years and their mothers. Children completed self-reports of empathy and social anxiety, mothers reported mother-child conflict, and peer rejection was measured using peer nomination. Cognitive empathy and positive empathy were negatively associated with social anxiety, and negative empathy was positively associated with social anxiety. The positive effects of high positive empathy on social anxiety existed only in children with low mother-child conflict and low peer rejection. The positive effects of high cognitive empathy on social anxiety were found only in girls with low peer rejection. The results of this study indicate that different constructs of empathy may increase or decrease the risk of social anxiety in children, and a negative interpersonal environment may offset the positive effects of empathy on social anxiety.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Price excludes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
The data that support the findings of this study are available on reasonable request from the corresponding author. The data are not publicly available due to restrictions on their containing information that could compromise the privacy of research participants.
Aiken, L. S., & West, S. G. (1991). Multiple regression: Testing and interpreting interactions. Newbury Park, London: Sage.
Alvi, T., Kouros, C. D., Lee, J., Fulford, D., & Tabak, B. A. (2020). Social Anxiety Is Negatively Associated with Theory of Mind an Empathic Accuracy. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 129(1), 108–113. https://doi.org/10.1037/abn0000493
American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders 5th ed. American Psychiatric Press. https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.books.9780890425596
Andreychik, M. R. (2019). I like that you feel my pain, but I love that you feel my joy: Empathy for a partner’s negative versus positive emotions independently affect relationship quality. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 36(3), 834–854. https://doi.org/10.1177/0265407517746518
Andreychik, M. R., & Lewis, E. (2017). Will you help me to suffer less? How about to feel more joy? Positive and negative empathy are associated with different other-oriented motivations. Personality and Individual Differences, 105, 139–149. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2016.09.038
Andreychik, M. R., & Migliaccio, N. (2015). Empathizing with Others’ Pain Versus Empathizing with Others’ Joy: Examining the Separability of Positive and Negative Empathy and Their Relation to Different Types of Social Behaviors and Social Emotions. Basic & Applied Social Psychology.https://doi.org/10.1080/01973533.2015.1071256
Auyeung, K., & Alden, L. E. (2020). Accurate Empathy, Social Rejection, and Social Anxiety Disorder. Clinical Psychological Science, 8(2), 266–279. https://doi.org/10.1177/2167702619885410
Bagwell, C. L., Newcomb, A. F., & Bukowski, W. M. (2010). Preadolescent Friendship and Peer Rejection as Predictors of Adult Adjustment. Child Development, 69(1), 140–153. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8624.1998.tb06139.x
Batanova, M., & Loukas, A. (2014). Unique and Interactive Effects of Empathy, Family, and School Factors on Early Adolescents’ Aggression. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 43(11), 1890–1902. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10964-013-0051-1
Benjamini, Y., & Hochberg, Y. (1995). Controlling the false discovery rate: a practical and powerful approach to multiple testing. Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, 57, 289–300. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.2517-6161.1995.tb02031.x
Beidel, D. C., Turner, S. M., & Dancu, C. V. (1985). Physiological, cognitive and behavioral aspects of social anxiety. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 23(2), 109–117. https://doi.org/10.1016/0005-7967(85)90019-1
Beidel, D. C., Turner, S. M., & Morris, T. L. (1999). Psychopathology of childhood social phobia. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 38(6), 643–650. https://doi.org/10.1097/00004583-199906000-00010
Boelen, P. A., & Reijntjes, A. (2008). Intolerance of uncertainty and social anxiety. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 23(1), 130–135. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.janxdis.2008.04.007
Bornovalova, M. A., Cummings, J. R., Hunt, E., Blazei, R., Malone, S., & Iacono, W. G. (2014). Understanding the relative contributions of direct environmental effects and passive genotype-environment correlations in the association between familial risk factors and child disruptive behavior disorders. Psychological Medicine, 44(4), 831844. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0033291713001086
Buchanan, T. W., Bagley, S. L., Stansfield, R. B., & Preston, S. D. (2012). The empathic, physiological resonance of stress. Social neuroscience, 7(2), 191–201. https://doi.org/10.1080/17470919.2011.588723
Bukowski, W. M., Sippola, L., Hoza, B., & Newcomb, A. F. (2000). Pages from a sociometric notebook: An analysis of nomination and rating scale measures of acceptance, rejection, and social preference. New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development, 11–26. https://doi.org/10.1002/cd.23220008804
Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The ecology of human development: Experiments by nature and design. Harvard university press.
Byrne, S. E., & Rapee, R. M. (2021). Empathic Communication Among Women with High or Low Social Anxiety. Cognitive Therapy and Research. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10608-021-10248-y
Cannon, W. B. (1932). The Wisdom of the Body. New York, NY, USA: Norton.
Coie, J.D., Coppotelli H., & Dodge, K. A. (1982) Dimensions and types of social status: A cross-age perspective. Developmental Psychology, 18(4), 557?570. https://doi.org/10.1037/0012-16220.127.116.117
Van Lissa, C. J., Hawk, S. T., Branje, S. J., Koot, H. M., Van Lier, P. A., & Meeus, W. H. (2015). Divergence Between Adolescent and Parental Perceptions of Conflict in Relationship to Adolescent Empathy Development. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 44(1), 48–61. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10964-014-0152-5
De Waal, F. B. M. (2008). Putting the altruism back into altruism: The evolution of empathy. Annual Review of Psychology, 59, 279–300. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.psych.59.103006.093625
Dodge, K. A., Lansford, J. E., Burks, V. S., Bates, J. E., Pettit, G. S., Fontaine, R., et al. (2003). Peer rejection and social information processing actors in the development of aggressive behavior problems in children. Child Development, 74, 374393. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-8624.7402004
Farmer, A. S., & Kashdan, T. B. (2012). Social Anxiety and Emotion Regulation in Daily Life: Spillover Effects on Positive and Negative Social Events. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, 41(2), 152–162. https://doi.org/10.1080/16506073.2012.666561
Gambin, M., Sharp, & Carla (2018). Relations between empathy and anxiety dimensions in inpatient adolescents. Anxiety Stress & Coping, 31(4), 447–458. https://doi.org/10.1080/10615806.2018.1475868
Gleason, K. A., Jensen-Campbell, L. A., & Ickes, W. (2009). The role of empathic accuracy in adolescents’ peer relations and adjustment. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35(8), 997–1011. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167209336605
Gilbert, P., & Trower, P. (2001). Evolution and process in social anxiety. In W. R. Crozier, & L. E. Alden (Eds.), International handbook of social anxiety: Concepts, research and interventions relating to the self and shyness (pp. 259–279). Chichester, UK: Wiley.
Green, L. M., Lies, M., Tone, E. B., & Koen, L. (2018). Empathy, Depressive Symptoms, and Self-Esteem in Adolescence: The Moderating Role of the Mother-Adolescent Relationship. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 27. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10826-018-1216-z
Guo, H., Chen, L., Zhi, Y. E., Pan, J., & Lin, D. (2017). Characteristics of peer victimization and the bidirectional relationship between peer victimization and internalizing problems among rural-to-urban migrant children in China: A longitudinal study. Acta Psychological Sinica, 49(3), 336–348. https://doi.org/10.3724/SP.J.1041.2017.00336
Guo, R., He, Z., & Wu, Z. (2019). Emotion makes a difference: Induced sadness reduces preschool boys’ sharing behavior-ScienceDirect. Evolution and Human Behavior, 40(2), 148–155. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2018.10.001
Duong, J., & Bradshaw, C. P. (2017). Links between contexts and middle to late childhood social-emotional development. American Journal of Community Psychology, 60, 538–554. https://doi.org/10.1002/ajcp.12201
Jütten, L. H., Mark, R. E., & Sitskoorn, M. M. (2019). Empathy in informal dementia caregivers and its relationship with depression, anxiety, and burden. International Journal of Clinical and Health Psychology, 19(1), 12–21. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijchp.2018.07.004
Kanske, P., Ckler, B., Trautwein, A., F. M., & Singer, T. (2015). Dissecting the social brain: Introducing the EmpaToM to reveal distinct neural networks and brain-behavior relations for empathy and Theory of Mind. Neuroimage, 122, 6–19. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2015.07.082
Kupersmidt, J. B., & Dodge, K. A. (2004). Decade of behavior. Children s peer relations: from development to intervention. In M. J. Sandstrom & A. L. Zakriski (Eds.), Understanding the experience of peer rejection (pp. 101?118). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Greca, A. L., Dandes, S. K., Wick, P., Shaw, K., & Stone, W. L. (1988). Development of the social anxiety scale for children: reliability and concurrent validity. Journal of clinical child psychology, 17(1), 84–91. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15374424jccp1701_11
Lamm, C., Bukowski, H., & Silani, G. (2016). From shared to distinct self-other representations in empathy: evidence from neurotypical function and socio-cognitive disorders. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, 371(1686), https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2015.0083
Leith, K. P., & Baumeister, R. F. (1998). Empathy, Shame, Guilt, and Narratives of Interpersonal Conflicts: Guilt-Prone People Are Better at Perspective Taking. Journal of Personality, 66(1), 1–37. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-6494.00001
Lin, X., Li, L., Chi, P., Wang, Z., & Fang, X. (2016). Child maltreatment and interpersonal relationship among Chinese children with oppositional defiant disorder. Child Abuse & Neglect, 51(1), 192–202. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chiabu.2015.10.013
Lissa, C., Hawk, S. T., Koot, H. M., Branje, S., & Meeus, W. (2017). The Cost of Empathy: Parent-Adolescent Conflict Predicts Emotion Dysregulation for Highly Empathic Youth. Developmental Psychology, 53(9), https://doi.org/10.1037/dev0000361
Liu, L. S., Xu, L. Y., Luo, F., & Li, Y. F. (2018). Intergenerational transmission of interpersonal strengths: The role of parent gender, family processes, and child characteristics. Journal of Adolescence, 67, 66–76. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.adolescence.2018.06.005
Ma, H. (1999). Social anxiety scale for children. In X. D. Wang, X. L. Wang, & H. Ma (Eds.), Handbook of rating scale for mental health Chinese Mental Health Journal Press. Revised edition, pp. 248–249.
Maes, M., Nelemans, S. A., Danneel, S., Fernandez-Castilla, B., Van den Noortgate, W., Goossens, L., & Vanhalst, J. (2019). Loneliness and Social Anxiety Across Childhood and Adolescence: Multilevel Meta-Analyses of Cross-Sectional and Longitudinal Associations. Developmental psychology, 55(7), 1548–1565. https://doi.org/10.1037/dev0000719
Morelli, S. A., Lieberman, M. D., & Zaki, J. (2015). The Emerging Study of Positive Empathy. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 9(2), 57–68. https://doi.org/10.1111/spc3.12157
Morosan, L., Ghisletta, P., Badoud, D., Toffel, E., Eliez, S., & Debbane, M. (2020). Longitudinal Relationships Between Reflective Functioning, Empathy, and Externalizing Behaviors During Adolescence and Young Adulthood. Child Psychiatry & Human Development, 51(1), 59–70. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10578-019-00910-8
Morrison, A. S., Mateen, M. A., Brozovich, F. A., Zaki, J., Goldin, P. R., Heimberg, R. G., & Gross, J. J. (2016). Empathy for positive and negative emotions in social anxiety disorder. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 87, 232–242. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.brat.2016.10.005
Ollendick, T. H., Benoit, K., & Grills-Taquechel, A. E. (2014). Social anxiety in children and adolescents. In J. W. Weeks (Ed.), The Wiley-Blackwell handbook of social anxiety (pp. 181–200). West Sussex, UK: Wiley Blackwell.
O’Toole, M. S., Jensen, M. B., Ntz, F., Zachariae, H. N., R., & Hougaard, E. (2014). Emotion Differentiation and Emotion Regulation in High and Low Socially Anxious Individuals: An Experience-Sampling Study. Cognitive Therapy & Research, 38(4), 428–438. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10608-014-9611-2
Ozturk, Y., Ozyurt, G., Turan, S., Mutlu, C., Tufan, A. E., & Akay, A. P. (2021). Association of theory of mind and empathy abilities in adolescents with social anxiety disorder. Current Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12144-020-00707-2
Pepper, K. L., Demetriou, E. A., Park, S. H., Boulton, K. A., & Guastella, A. J. (2019). Self-Reported Empathy in Adults with Autism, Early Psychosis, and Social Anxiety Disorder. Psychiatry Research, 281, 112604. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psychres.2019.112604
Pianta, R. C. (1992). Child–parent relationship scale (CPRS). Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia
Pineles, S. L., & Mineka, S. (2005). Attentional biases to internal and external sources of potential threat in social anxiety. Journal of Abnormal Psychology Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 114(2), 314. https://doi.org/10.1037/0021-843X.114.2.314
Pittelkow, M., Aan Het Rot, M., Seidel, L. J., Feyel, N., & Roest, A. M. (2021). Social Anxiety and Empathy: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 78, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.janxdis.2021.102357
Premack, D., & Woodruff, G. (1978). Does the chimpanzee have a theory of mind? Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 4, 515–526.
Rapee, R. M., & Spen Ce, S. H. (2004). The etiology of social phobia: Empirical evidence and an initial model. Clinical Psychology Review, 24(7), 737–767. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cpr.2004.06.004
Hudson, J. L., Rapee, R. M., Lyneham, H. J., Wuthrich, V., & Schniering, C. A. (2010). Treatment outcome rates for children with social phobia. Paper presented at the World Congress of Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies.
Reilly, J. O., & Peterson, C. C. (2015). Maltreatment and Advanced Theory of Mind Development in School-aged Children. Journal of Family Violence, 30(1), 93–102. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10896-014-9647-9
Reniers, R., Corcoran, R., Drake, R., Shryane, N. M., & Vollm, B. A. (2011). The QCAE: A Questionnaire of Cognitive and Affective Empathy. Journal of Personality Assessment, 93(1), 84–95. https://doi.org/10.1080/00223891.2010.528484
Sallquist, J., Eisenberg, N., Spinrad, T. L., Eggum, N. D., & Gaertner, B. M. (2009). Assessment of preschoolers’ positive empathy: concurrent and longitudinal relations with positive emotion, social competence, and sympathy. Journal of Positive Psychology, 4(3), 223–233. https://doi.org/10.1080/17439760902819444
Shamay-Tsoory, S. G. (2011). The Neural Bases for Empathy. The Neuroscientist : A Review Journal Bringing Neurobiology, Neurology And Psychiatry, 17(1), 18. https://doi.org/10.1177/1073858410379268
Stein, D. J., Lim, C., Roest, A. M., Jonge, P. D., Aguilar-Gaxiola, S., Al-Hamzawi, A., Alonso, J., Benjet, C., Bromet, E. J., & Bruffaerts, R. (2017). The cross-national epidemiology of social anxiety disorder: Data from the World Mental Health Survey Initiative. Bmc Medicine, 15(1), 143. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12916-017-0889-2
Stein, M. B., & Dan, J. S. (2008). Social anxiety disorder. Lancet, 371(9618), 1115–1125. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(08)60488-2
Stein, M. B., & Kean, Y. M. (2000). Disability and Quality of Life in Social Phobia: Epidemiologic Findings. American Journal of Psychiatry, 157(10), 1606–1613. https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.ajp.157.10.1606
Taylor, C. T., Bomyea, J., & Amir, N. (2010). Attentional bias away from positive social information mediates the link between social anxiety and anxiety vulnerability to a social stressor. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 24(4), 403–408. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.janxdis.2010.02.004
Tibi-Elhanany, Y., & Shamay-Tsoory, S. G. (2010). Social cognition in social anxiety: first evidence for increased empathic abilities. Israel Journal of Psychiatry and Related Sciences, 48(2), 98–106. https://doi.org/10.3109/09540261.2011.639351
Tone, E. B., & Tully, E. C. (2014). Empathy as a “risky strength”: A multilevel examination of empathy and risk for internalizing disorders. Development & Psychopathology, 26(4), 1547–1565. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0954579414001199
Tully, E. C., & Donohue, M. R. (2017). Empathic Responses to Mother’s Emotions Predict Internalizing Problems in Children of Depressed Mothers. Child Psychiatry & Human Development, 48(1), 94–106. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10578-016-0656-1
Turk, C. L., Heimberg, R. G., Luterek, J. A., Mennin, D. S., & Fresco, D. M. (2005). Emotion Dysregulation in Generalized Anxiety Disorder: A Comparison with Social Anxiety Disorder. Cognitive Therapy & Research, 29(1), 89–106. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10608-005-1651-1
Van der Graaff, J., Carlo, G., Crocetti, E., Koot, H. M., & Branje, S. (2018). Prosocial Behavior in Adolescence: Gender Differences in Development and Links with Empathy. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 47(5), 1086–1099. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10964-017-0786-1
Wang, X., & Su, Y. (2019). Revision of QCAE Empathy Scale for Chinese Adolescents. Psychol Techniq Applicat, 7(9), 536–547.
Westenberg, P. M., Drewes, M. J., Goedhart, A. W., Siebelink, B. M., & Treffers, P. D. A. (2010). A developmental analysis of self-reported fears in late childhood through mid-adolescence: social-evaluative fears on the rise? Journal of Child Psychology & Psychiatry, 45(3), 481–495. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1469-7610.2004.00239.x
Xiong, M., Liu, R., & Yiduo, Y. E. (2021). Reciprocal relations between relative deprivation and psychological adjustment among single-parent children in china: a longitudinal study. Acta Psychologica Sinica, 53(1), 67. https://doi.org/10.3724/SP.J.1041.2021.00067
Zahn-Waxler, C., & Van Hulle, C. (2012). Empathy, guilt, and depression: When caring for others becomes costly to children. In B. Oakley, A. Knafo, G. Madhavan, & D. S. Wilson (Eds.), Pathological altruism (pp. 321–334). New York: Oxford University Press.
Zaki, & Jamil (2014). Empathy: A motivated account. Psychological Bulletin, 140(6), 1608. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0037679
Zhang, X., & Chen, H. (2010). Reciprocal influences between parents’ perceptions of mother-child and father-child relationships: A short-term longitudinal study in Chinese preschoolers. The Journal of Genetic Psychology, 171(1), 22–34. https://doi.org/10.1080/00221320903300387
Zhang, P., Ni, W., Xie, R., Xu, J., & Liu, X. (2017). Gender Differences in the Difficulty in Disengaging from Threat among Children and Adolescents with Social Anxiety. Frontiers in Psychology. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00419
Zhao, X., Zhang, P., Chen, L., & Zhou, R. (2014). Gender differences in the relationship between attentional bias to threat and social anxiety in adolescents. Personality & Individual Differences, 71, 108–112. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2014.07.023
Zimmer-Gembeck, M. J., Hunter, T. A., Waters, A. M., & Pronk, R. (2009). Depression as a longitudinal outcome and antecedent of preadolescents’ peer relationships and peer-relevant cognition. Development and Psychopathology, 21(02), 555–577. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0954579409000303
This study was supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (31900774) and the Beijing Municipal Social Science Foundation of China (19JYB013).
All procedures followed approved by Beijing Normal University’s institutional review board.
Informed consent/assent was obtained from all study participants.
Conflict of interest
The authors have no conflicts of interest or competing interests to declare.
Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
Rights and permissions
Springer Nature or its licensor holds exclusive rights to this article under a publishing agreement with the author(s) or other rightsholder(s); author self-archiving of the accepted manuscript version of this article is solely governed by the terms of such publishing agreement and applicable law.
About this article
Cite this article
Cui, D., Liu, L., Wei, B. et al. Associations between Empathy and social anxiety in Childhood: the moderating role of mother-child conflict and peer rejection. Curr Psychol (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12144-022-03537-6
- Cognitive empathy
- Positive empathy
- Negative empathy
- Social anxiety
- Mother-child conflict
- Peer rejection