How quickly do you pick up on the emotional cues of those around you? Are you capable of understanding the perspective of another person — their feelings, thoughts, and experiences — even if they are different from you in their appearance, beliefs, and social status? If you answered yes to these questions, then you possess empathy, the God-given gift we humans use to really know another person.
For psychologists, empathy has become one of the most important measuring sticks of human mental health, because empathy is a precondition to all successful interpersonal relationships, without which human beings (and indeed society) will never fully thrive.
We are born with a capacity for empathy, but it’s only a capacity. How deeply it takes root and how much it matures depends on many factors, including our childhood experiences. Scientists are fascinated by empathy because of the stark difference in children who either experience or are deprived of specific formative experiences in childhood which they believe are necessary if empathy is to unfold. As I discussed recently on Greg & Lisa Popcak’s radio program More2Life, these experiences can be boiled down to three categories:
1. Responsive Parenting
Responsive parenting is the most powerful factor in determining whether a child will become empathic or narcissistic. We are responsive parents when we nurture and nourish the parent-child bond from birth through the teen years. When parents respond lovingly to their infants and young children when they are distressed, when they spend lots of time cuddling, hugging, and laughing with their children, when they treat them with dignity, and respect their feelings and fears, their children learn over time that the world is a safe place, that people can be trusted, and that even when things don’t go as they wanted or expected, they will be okay.
These children are securely attached, and it turns out emotionally secure children are more empathic than less secure children. Why? One explanation is that children who are parented in this way have better-functioning corpus callosums — the band of nerve tissue running down the middle of the brain which helps the two sides of the brain “communicate” back and forth. Because the left and right hemispheres of the brain are linked up better in emotionally secure children, they can pick up on emotional cues in others (right-brain strength) and find the words for understanding those feelings (left-brain strength) far more easily than insecurely-attached children. Their “caring brain” just gets more exercise; these kids literally build more gray matter in the caring parts of the brain.
When you mirror your child’s emotions, you name and recognize your child’s emotions without judging them. When your child is angry, distressed, frightened, or joyful you can give a name to what your child is experiencing on an emotional level: “I can see you feel sad about your doll breaking” or “You are angry that your sister gets to stay up later than you”. Sad, angry, happy, worried, excited. All names for the emotions our children experience, but which they seldom understand rationally.
At first it might seem corny or wooden to mirror you child’s feelings in this way, but by doing so you take the first step in helping her understand and manage them better. You also help her feel recognized and understood, which is absolutely critical in developing a capacity to care for and understand others. When you respect her feelings, even if she seems a little crazy and irrational to you, you are affirming her dignity, and in the long run she internalizes your respect for her and she actually lives in her own skin instead of always wondering what others are thinking about her. Because she possesses greater self-awareness and emotional health, she will be able to tune into the emotional world of somebody else quite effortlessly.
Children can learn to understand the perspective of others through guidance & practice! No big planning necessary: these lessons can come in the course of every day family life.
Stories or movies: When you read a book together (yes, you can read to big kids – they love it!) or watch a movie, use the experiences of the characters to teach your child perspective taking. What did the character want? How did she feel when X happened or didn’t happen? What was she probably thinking?
Games: Some games are especially effective in building perspective-taking in kids (“Charades,”for example), but really any game can provide an opportunity to talk about what others are thinking and feeling. While playing board games or sports, teach her to be a good sport – to understand how it feels to lose and win, and how they can respect the feelings of other players.
Conflicts with other children: When our kids have a conflict with another child, this is a great opportunity to point out the perspectives and experiences of the child, even if in the long-run she doesn’t agree with the child’s choices or even her viewpoint. Empathy doesn’t require that we agree with everyone, only that we get out of own heads and get behind the eyes of another person to get a better idea of where they’re coming from.
So, by raising empathic children, we are building more emotionally secure children, families, and indeed communities. And let’s not forget: empathy is the gift we use not only to know each other, but also to know God on a deep, personal level. When they possess empathy, hopefully their faith eventually becomes embodied; it becomes more about an encounter with the Person of Christ than a set of rules.
If you’d like to listen to the entire More2Life program, here’s the audio! My bit comes in after 20 minutes or so.