Henri Nouwen once wrote: “When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives means the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.”
Nouwen was speaking about empathy.
Empathy is the ability to feel or imagine someone’s pain and offer help. It is a difficult skill to cultivate, even for adults. For years, Freud led us to believe that kids were just too egocentric to care about other people’s feelings. It turns out Freud was wrong. Multiple studies undertaken since his initial findings have come to the conclusion that children are capable of displaying empathy-related behavior.
In a longitudinal study involving two and three year olds, researchers were able to show that there was an increase in empathy related behavior over the second year of life. Children were able to show concern (for example look sad) and prosocial behavior (for example give hugs) when they felt that someone was in distress. By year three, children were capable of expressing verbal and facial concern when they sensed others’ distress.
There is evidence that empathy is associated with prosocial behavior. When we teach our kids to cultivate empathy, we help them in their social and emotional development because being empathic affects the quality of the relationships they share with others. In other words, empathy helps children develop social competence.
Additional evidence suggests that when children learn to cultivate empathy early, they are more likely to display empathy-related responses well beyond the childhood years.
One study suggests that empathic kids are also more likely to follow rules even in the absence of supervision.
The good news is that although genetic and neurodevelopment factors influence the development of empathy, environmental factors also play a great role in kids’ ability to develop empathy. In other words, kids can be taught to cultivate empathy and develop empathy-related behavior.
It goes without saying that if kids don’t understand different emotions, they cannot be expected to understand other peoples’ feelings.
From as early as age three kids can be taught to identify different emotions and to understand how those emotions are reflected – laugh, cry, frown, shout. There is evidence that when parents explain the causes and consequences of emotions, their children are more likely to understand others’ emotions.
It’s never too soon to start teaching your kids about emotions. When you incorporate your kid’s emotions in your everyday life – “I know you’re upset” or “I can see you’re frustrated” – you begin to familiarize him with different emotions. The good thing about teaching kids about emotions is that emotions are everywhere! Find fun ways to talk about emotions with your kids while using everyday experiences.
There is evidence that we unconsciously imitate empathy-related mannerisms and even facial expressions. Mimicking can be observed even in the youngest of children. Kids’ tendency to mimic others helps them internalize other’s emotions and helps cultivate the ability to empathize. This means that how we interact with our kids teaches them how to interact with others.
Providing a model for being sensitive to others’ feelings helps kids cultivate empathy. When we react to our kids with warmth and concern or are sympathetic to other people’s feelings, we teach them to react to others with concern. The quality of the parent-child relationship counts.
In one study, 110 children (approximately seven year-olds) participated in a two-month program to determine whether children could be trained in emotion understanding. The study found that when the children were engaged in conversations on emotion understanding (as opposed to the control group which was asked to draw a picture of the story), they were more likely to cultivate empathy over the long term.
There are many opportunities to cultivate empathy when reading with your kids. Good children’s books focus on everyday emotions – sorrow, happiness, anxiety, etc. – and can help you teach your kid to cultivate empathy. When you read with your kid, ask questions that encourage her to notice other peoples' feelings: “X sure looks sad” or “how do you think she’s feeling?” and “What do you think happened?”
Role playing is a powerful tool that can help teach kids empathy. Using a study referred to as the “Aging Game”, 84 medical students were asked to simulate the aging experience. Results found that role playing helped develop greater empathy towards the elderly.
The world is full of different people, but despite our differences we are united by our similarities. Teach your kid about different people. Find books about different cultures and share them with your kids. Help your kid understand the experiences other people go through. Asking kids to imagine how others feel, or what they go through, can help them develop greater empathy.