Empathy can be defined as recognising and understanding the feelings of others. From an evolutionary perspective, empathy is crucial and a valuable tool without which otherwise we would not have been so successful as a species. We are biologically wired for connection with others, and empathy facilitates this connection.
Below are some thoughts on how we can helping our children to develop empathy.
Can young children feel empathy?
There is a commonly held view that young children do not possess the ability to be empathetic. Children are still developing the ability to feel and communicate empathy throughout their childhood (the current thinking is that this is not fully developed until the mid-twenties!) but research has shown consistently that even very young children will try and soothe or comfort each other, or try to help adults when they sense they are struggling with something. Rather than drawing an arbitrary line between those who can feel empathy and those who cannot, it is more helpful to look at empathy as a skill which, with support, can continue to grow throughout childhood and early adulthood.
A bit about the brain…
The orbitofrontal cortex is the part of the brain that is most responsible for our emotional intelligence, in regulating our impulses, and in our ability to feel empathy. It contains neurons that specialise in detecting emotion in other people’s eyes and faces as well as their tone of voice. When stress-related hormones such as cortisol are released in large quantities following emotionally traumatic experiences they can damage these brain cells, causing permanent disruptions. The greatest damage occurs when emotional stress is chronic.
Shame triggers cortisol; one could therefore say that shame kills empathy, perhaps highlighting why shame-based models of parenting are ineffective when it comes to raising kind and empathetic humans. (Read more about why I don’t use punishments here).
Vulnerability and empathy
When we allow ourselves to be vulnerable with others, we create the space for them to respond with empathy, leading to connection, and hopefully to further vulnerability, empathy and even more connection, and so on in a positive loop. When our vulnerability is met with shame and judgement rather than empathy however, the possibility for connection is lost, and further vulnerability seems risky.
The same goes for children. When we respond with empathy and kindness to our children’s vulnerability (“tantrums”, tears, complaints, anger) we create the space for connection with them. When we shame or punish them for their vulnerability however, our response may instead lead to them disconnecting and withdrawing, or turning to hostility and aggression.
How can we support our children in developing empathy?
- Meet their needs. All children need acceptance, warmth, love, affection, empathy, respect, tenderness, freedom of expression, healthy boundaries, and a right to autonomy over their bodies. Having these needs met will support them in developing emotional intelligence and empathy.
- Let go of the need to protect them from negative emotions. Just as neglectful behaviour is damaging, so is overprotective behaviour which seeks to prevent all negative emotions, or hide children from them. Children need to see a range of real emotions if they are to learn to read emotions properly. If a parent who is very upset or angry tells a child they are “fine”, the child receives very mixed signals and messages, and can find it difficult to successfully read others emotional states.
- Model empathy ourselves. The best thing that we can do as parents to help our children develop empathy is to model it ourselves through our language and behaviour. We can practice this by truly listening to our children when they speak to us, acknowledging their feelings, guessing how they might be feeling, and using active listening tools.
- Ask them questions about themselves. Ask questions to support their understanding of their own feelings and emotions such as “why do you think you did that?” or “what are you feeling right now”?
- Ask them questions about others. Ask questions to support their understanding of other people’s feelings and emotions such as “why do you think she did that?” or “what do you think they are feeling”?
- Offer commentary on others behaviour. You can also offer commentary on other people’s actions to teach empathy, such as: “That little girl must be feeling really sad to be crying like that” or “Yes, I saw that he took the toy from you. He must have really wanted it and not known how to ask for it in any other ways” or “They look angry. Maybe it’s because…?” It goes without saying, but do this politely!
- Read books! Reading books to children increases their empathy levels. Don’t shy away from books which include negative or difficult emotions – as long as you’re there to support your child and answer any questions, these are a great opportunity to safely explore these emotions and develop empathy.
PS. Whilst you’re here, I want to let you know that my brand new course Making Sense of Screens opens for booking this Thursday! You can find out more about the course here. I can’t wait to work with you.