The development of empathy is essential – Part 2

Empathy can be helped, or hindered. Authors call for an “empathy epidemic” to address violence, bullying, child abuse, racism and other inequities.

Part of emotional development is the development of empathy, which is defined as the ability to sense and recognize others’ feelings and emotions – and to care about making it better if it hurts.

Many parents, educators and scholars agree that the development of social and emotional skills is critically important for children, youth and adults.

In their book Born for Love: Why empathy is essential—and endangered, authors Maia Szalavitz and Bruce Perry, M.D., Ph.D., stress that not only is the development of empathy important for individual health and wellbeing, but that it also “underlies virtually everything that makes society work—like trust, altruism, collaboration, love, charity.”

Perry and Szalavitz also stress that our natural in-born capacity to develop empathy can be helped or hindered. Here are several recommendations for parents, caregivers and others who care about the healthy development of children and youth:

  • Our relationships in infancy and early childhood are foundational to the development of empathy, care and compassion. Even pregnant women need to be safe, nourished, nurtured and surrounded by those who care and who help them navigate stress because of the impact on their developing child. Create environments that are warm, loving and emotionally, spiritually and physically safe for all.
  • Spend as much quality and quantity time with little ones as possible. Babies and small children need many hours every day with the same few people over and over in order to develop the relational capacity of their brains that foster empathy.
  • Cuddle up and read to children on a regular basis in order to provide playful, engaged, socially and cognitively stimulating experiences. Ask kids questions about the characters in the book such as “what do you think he’s thinking and feeling?” Reading encourages perspective-taking and empathy, and builds networks in our brains responsible for planning and impulse control. Greater self-control tends to reduce violence.
  • Provide lots of opportunities for children and youth to play. Play is at the heart of healthy brain development and the development of empathy. Unfortunately, many children spend too much time in adult-driven, highly structured activities or passively sitting in front of video screens. Child-driven, spontaneous, creative, open-ended, unstructured and outdoor play is essential to the development of physical, social and emotional health and empathy.
  • Eat family meals together as much as possible. Invite conversations at the dinner table that have meaning and significance. Talk about values, ideas and events happening in the lives of family members from a place of openness and respect.
  • Engage older children in explicit discussions that promote empathy. This includes talking about why people have different beliefs and points of view and the impact of people’s actions on others.
  • Approach challenges and problems as opportunities for healing, growth and learning. For example, when disciplining children, use reasoning, perspective-taking, consistency, natural and appropriate consequences. Research shows that children who receive corporal or physical punishment tend to be more aggressive and antisocial as teenagers.
  • Don’t give up on any young person. Even those who perpetuate bullying or other hurtful actions need understanding, love and support. Those who bully others are often being victimized and humiliated in another aspect of their life. Being further victimized tends to make them angrier, not kinder.
  • Engage young people in opportunities to work in partnership with adults to address issues that they care about in order to work for positive change and social justice.

Michigan State University Extension provides opportunities for parents, youth workers and other adults to learn more about issues related social and emotional health, healthy relationships and bullying and ways to create safe, affirming and fair environments with and on behalf of young people. For more information, check out a new initiative called Be SAFE: Safe, Affirming and Fair Environments.

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