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Promoting Empathy in our Kids (and in Ourselves)

Published in Psychology Today

I don’t think I fully grasped how empathetic my son, Edwin, was until I had my second child. When we brought newborn Charlie home from the hospital, Edwin went through an understandable transition; there were a lot of tantrums, “no’s”, and power struggles. What was most noteworthy though, was Edwin’s reaction when Charlie cried. As a newborn, Charlie cried a lot, and while the tantrums and “no’s” simmered down as Edwin got used to sharing his parents’ attention with his little brother, the crying that remained was the crying in response to Charlie’s cries…and as it turns out, when anyone cries. When Edwin sees another person, child, or baby crying, his face immediately changes shape. First he tries to smile—a fake smile—to cope with the surge of emotion he’s feeling. Then he cries too. Sometimes it’s just a small whimper, but sometimes it’s the kind of full blown sobbing that you would expect if someone just destroyed your favorite toy.

After I noticed that this type of thing happened quite often, I also noticed that Edwin had similar reactions when characters expressed negative emotion on television. We were recently watching an episode of his favorite show Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, and in this particular episode, Daniel’s fish died. At some point I looked up from whatever I was doing to check on Edwin, and as Daniel expressed his sadness, Edwin too was in tears, even though he did not fully understand exactly what was so sad about Daniel’s situation. He’s particularly tuned in to my emotions too. Even if I pretend to make a sad face, he immediately asks, “are you just kidding mommy?” to make sure the situation is under control.

Empathy is an emotion that stems from understanding what another person might be feeling, and then feeling that same thing (or something similar). The first requirement—the ability to understand what another person might be thinking or feeling—is something that develops slowly; it starts in infancy and continues into the preschool years. First, babies gain the ability to understand that people have intentions that typically guide their actions. We see evidence that infants can act based on inferring another’s intention by about 14 to 18 months. Research has shown, for example, that infants of this age will go out of their way to help an adult who shows signs of trouble achieving a goal (Warneken & Tomasello, 2006, 2007). Around the same age, infants will also attempt to comfort their mothers if they appear to be upset (Roth-Hanania, Davidov, & Zahn-Waxler, 2011). However, a more sophisticated ability to reason about others’ thoughts, what psychologists call a “theory of mind,” doesn’t fully develop until age 5 or 6. Children of this age can understand that another person might believe something that isn’t true, or that they might express one emotion and feel another.

Unfortunately, empathy can have some downsides. For example, the second requirement—feeling the same thing that someone else is feeling—can cause some personal distress. In fact, children who are particularly prone to feeling negative emotions are more prone to experiencing empathy (Spinrad & Eisenberg, 2019). In other words, children who are already extra sensitive, like my own son, might experience intense negative emotions because of high empathetic concern for others.

Another potential downside of empathy is that we don’t exactly dole it out evenly. In fact, most of us are more likely to feel empathetic toward people who are like us—members of our family, community, race, or ethnicity. On top of that, empathy for in-group members can even result in experiencing less empathy towards out-group members (e.g., Bruneau, Cikara, & Saxe, 2017), which might even open the door to racism and xenophobia (Bloom, 2017).

Regardless of these potential downsides, empathy is a good thing in most cases. In fact, it is generally considered to be a prosocial emotion, as the experience of empathy is associated with prosocial behaviors, like helping or sharing. In general, empathy is associated with healthy social relationships, close friendships, cooperation, and even school success (Masterson & Kersey, 2013). In adolescence, moral emotions are biggest predictors of moral choice, like choosing whether or not to cheat or steal (Krettenaur, Jia, & Mosleh, 2011). Further, empathy is negatively associated with bullying behavior, in that children who display more empathy are less likely to bully their peers (Mitsopoulou, & Giovazolias, 2015) and more likely to intervene when they see someone else being bullied (Nickerson, Mele, & Princiotta, 2008).

Unfortunately, national trends suggest that empathy is on the outs. In a large-scale analysis of studies with over 13,000 American college students between 1979 and 2009 empathy is declining sharply in the United States (Konrath, O'Brien, & Hsing, 2011). And despite some downsides, we need empathy: It is what allows us to relate to other people, consider their feelings, and motivates us to help. In fact, in a political climate where Americans are so divided, empathy might be more important than ever.

In his new book, The War for Kindness, author Jamil Zaki argues that empathy is something we can choose, something we can cultivate. For adults, imagining what it might be like to be another person’s shoes might help us make kinder, more empathetic decisions. Further, contact with individuals who are different from us can also help us to behave more empathetically towards people who usually wouldn’t bring out our kindest selves. Research suggests that even reading fiction novels can help with the ability to put ourselves in the minds of others and encourage empathy (Dodell-Feder & Tamir, 2018).

Besides helping ourselves behave more empathetically, there are also some things parents can do to encourage empathy in their children. If you have a child who tends to be a bit sensitive or is already highly in tune with the emotions of others, you might not have to do much to encourage empathy. In fact, like me, you might have to spend more time working through a child’s worry or guilt at the sight of a person in pain or distress. But for other children, talking to them about their emotions and the emotions of others can help. Indeed, parents who talk to their kids about their emotions have children who are higher in empathy, and behave more prosocially (Brownell, Svetlova, Anderson, Nichols, & Drummmond, 2013; Garner, Dunsmore, & Southam-Gerrow, 2008). A secure, warm, and responsive relationship between parents and children is also related to empathy (Stern & Cassidy, 2017; Spinrad & Eisenberg, 2019). In fact, some researchers have suggested that parents might be able to model empathy for their children (e.g., Eisenberg, VanSchnydel, & Hofer, 2015), so promoting an empathetic environment at home might produce more empathetic kids, and maybe even a kinder, more empathetic you.

Photo by voxeu/Pixabay


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