What is empathy?
Empathy is the ability to understand, feel, or share others’ feelings. An emotional reaction to what another person feels or would be expected to feel.
There are two main types of empathy: cognitive and emotional.
Cognitive empathy is the ability to understand another person’s perspective and feel their pain. You experience this kind of empathy when you immerse yourself in the experience of another person without losing your own feelings. It is also called role-taking.
Emotional empathy is the vicarious experience of another person’s emotional state. It involves experiencing an emotional response to the event either because you sympathize with the person (reactive empathy) or because you feel similar to the other person’s feelings (parallel empathy). Emotional empathy is also known as emotional responsiveness.
Also See: Vicarious Learning
Why is empathy important?
Empathy is vital for a cohesive society. It allows for ethical decision-making, kind acts, and altruism1. A lack of empathy regarding other people’s emotions in early childhood is associated with mental health issues later in life2, such as conduct disorder3 and psychopathy.
Understanding the feelings of others promotes social interactions and empathetic behavior. It plays a key role in internalizing rules and in helping others, even at one’s own expense.
Empathy in children is associated with more altruistic, cooperative, and prosocial behavior4. Empathetic kids have better social skills and emotional intelligence. Kids who have developed social-emotional skills show less aggression and better moral reasoning. They also display more guilt when they make mistakes and follow rules even without supervision5. Empathetic children are more likely to help those who are in distress, and less likely to participate in bullying6.
A sense of empathy is important to adults in everyday life, too. Taking another person’s perspective can increase trust and interpersonal closeness. They tend to feel a greater sense of satisfaction in their relationships7.
The science of empathy
In the 1990s, a new class of neurons was discovered in the brains of macaque monkeys. These neurons become active when a monkey grabs an object or when it watches another monkey grab an object. So carrying out an action and observing others perform it involves the same circuit of brain cells. Scientists call these mirror neurons.
Human beings have a similar set of brain cells. When we see another person move their fingers, the same finger-movement neural network in our brains is activated as in the performer’s8.
Similarly for emotions, when a person sees disgust emotion expressed by another person’s facial expression, the same neural structure as the performer is activated and the observer experiences similar feelings9. Visual information such as actions and expressions are critical in detecting or understanding another person’s feelings or state of mind10.
When do kids develop empathy?
The ability to mimic the emotion or sensation of another’s forms the basis of developing empathy in children. Even at as early an age as 18 hours old, newborns can mimic the mouth and face movements of the adult they are facing11.
How to teach empathy to kids
One of the best ways to teach kids empathy is by showing empathy through your action.
Emotional attunement allows you to empathize and understand your child’s emotions by modeling your child’s behavior intentionally, and of course, appropriately. Mimicking your child’s action activates the shared neural systems underpinning your child’s actions and emotions12.
A recent study shows that mothers who show kids more emotional attunement in the first year of life are more likely to have children who are empathetic in childhood and adolescence13.
You can convey emotional attunement by using exaggerated and partially imitative facial expressions, body language, and nonverbal cues that match the child’s emotional state. When your child is in distress and crying, you can respond with “Oh, poor baby” while using facial expressions and a tone of voice that expresses mild distress.
Be warm, nurturing, and responsive
So when do you show emotional attunement?
Simply become a warm, nurturing, and responsive parent14. Being a responsive parent means you will meet your child’s emotional needs by attuning to their positive and negative feelings.
Experiences in the early years with a primary caregiver are critical for the development of empathy. Parents who are warm, nurturing, and responsive to their children’s emotional needs promote secure attachment.
Securely attached children have more empathic concerns for others because their parents have shown concern for them. These children are better at understanding others’ points of view because their responsive parents have taken on their perspective15.
Emotion coaching, not emotion dismissing
Imagine while teaching empathy to kids, he asks, “How come when I dropped my ice cream the other day, you kept telling me that I shouldn’t be upset when in fact, I was very upset, but then I should try to understand how other people feel?”
“Why do I have to understand others’ emotions while no one understands mine?”
It sums up the fact that dismissing our children’s feelings is counterproductive in teaching them empathy and shows inconsistency in our words and action.
In some ways, it is ingrained in us that if we say that it isn’t here, it will disappear.
Language parents use with their children can affect how well they develop empathy, but not in a way that magically erases negative feelings.
Instead of dismissing a child’s emotions, we should coach their emotions and model empathy.
The more parents coach their children on how to label different emotions properly, the more likely these children are to show concern for others. And the more parents explain the causes and consequences of emotions, the more likely the kids will develop emotional awareness and try to understand another person’s emotions16.
Parents can also teach children how to think about issues by imagining how to walk in another person’s shoes. Being able to take in different perspectives is an important part of developing cognitive empathy17.
Make emotion coaching a part of daily life. Practice with your child by giving appropriate responses in different situations to show care and support.
On the contrary, if parents constantly dismiss their children’s emotions, children tend to develop callous-unemotional traits and lack empathy for others18.
Teach coping skills to develop emotional regulation
Emotional development is important in empathy development. Emotional regulation allows a child to face the negative emotions of others in a healthy way.
Attunement, responsive parenting, and emotional coaching are all factors that contribute to self-regulation. But a child also needs to learn coping skills to deal with negativity and develop stress tolerance.
For example, taking a deep breath is a great way to ground themselves and regulate their emotions.
Teach value, not similarities
Empathy helps connect people to others.
People are evolutionarily wired to recognize and respond to differences. We tend to have empathy for those who are similar to us, but fear for those who are different.
This fear is an automatic response to unfamiliar entities that are perceived as threats. This autonomic reaction can only be overcome by cognitive input in the thinking brain (prefrontal cortex.)
Some believe that teaching children to recognize what they have in common with others will encourage empathy development.
This is a popular belief, but a dangerous one.
First, the empirical evidence for this theory is limited19.
Second, from the similarity perspective, the desire to understand others’ feelings through similarities is a product of the generalization of self-interest to include others.
Teaching children to find similarities in others is still reinforcing the idea that we should have empathy for those who are like us, but only if we can find something that shows we’re alike.
Similarities don’t always provide good reasons to have empathy.
Here is a good example where empathy based on similarities rather than value can turn out bad.
When giving a light sentence to a Stanford University swimmer who raped an unconscious woman on campus, Judge Aaron Persky mentioned he himself was the Captain of the Lacrosse Team at Stanford while the convicted was a star athlete.
He showed empathy to the criminal due to the similarities between them and ignored justice and the victim, who had fewer similarities with the judge.
So, teach your child empathy based on values, not similarities.
Research shows that we can have empathy for those who are different from us, too.
Altruistic motivation is one such reason. We inherently want to nurture and help others in need no matter how different we are.
When we help children develop empathy regardless of differences and similarities, we are teaching them how to value the welfare of others and become truly altruistic. It becomes an integral part of their character.
Developing empathy through children’s literature, discussing other people’s feelings, and explaining different viewpoints are generally believed to be good ways to teach your child empathy.
However, these exercises can only help kids strengthen cognitive empathy.
In the end, a child cannot develop empathy if they have never experienced it. We need to show our empathy for kids, too.
None of these empathy activities for kids can replace a nurturing and emotionally attuned parent.
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