How To Master Emotional Intelligence Chapter 11 – How To Develop Empathy
Empathy, the ability to understand and feel compassion for others, is arguably the most important human trait – it distinguishes us from intelligent machines and even from other animals. Without it, we could not function in social settings like the schools, courtrooms, and office workplaces that are the cornerstones of our society. But babies and young children are not usually very sensitive to other people’s feelings. So how do they develop this important skill – do they learn it gradually or is it simply an innate ability that kicks in at a certain age?
Empathy means being sensitive to the emotions of others, understanding those emotions, and responding appropriately. Studies of empathy development need to address how children understand and respond to emotions rather than their ability to recognize them. This is because children who have difficulty with empathy tend to have little or no difficulty recognizing emotional reactions in others, but rather with understanding the purpose or cause of those reactions. For most children, empathy seems to come naturally. Others may be perfectly capable of understanding the emotions of others, but choose to react in inappropriate ways, such as being aggressive.
On the other hand, children with autism spectrum disorders may be very sensitive to the emotions of others, but at the same time have difficulty understanding those emotions and knowing how to respond. This difficulty can lead to negative social experiences, which in turn result in low social confidence and social withdrawal.
This highlights the importance of developing empathy: poor social skills in childhood have been linked to a range of problems in adulthood, from relationship and mental health problems to low income and substance abuse.
An Imitation Game. It has long been known that early experiences with social interactions shape the way we respond to others. Classic experiments in the 1960s showed that children became more aggressive after seeing aggression – and also copied certain aggressive behaviors. While this may seem to have nothing to do with empathy, it shows how important imitation is for children to learn emotional response patterns.
Newborns may not be very interactive, but they are capable of a form of simple facial imitation. Try sticking your tongue out at a newborn and it will mimic you. Within a few months, babies develop mutual smiles. By three months of age, babies are mirroring their parents’ emotions. For example, it has been shown that babies born to mothers who are very anxious smile less than others because their mothers smile less. It may not seem like it, but this is the very first stage of empathy.
Between six and 12 months, an infant can distinguish between different types of emotional expressions and begins to understand that other people have intentions. Imitative behavior continues and becomes more frequent during the first two years of life. In the second year of life, children also develop the ability to pretend and imitate behaviors to simulate the emotions of others, rather than just copying responses directly. Emotional expressions in others evoke a child’s own memories of similar emotional experiences – the basis for empathy. By age four, children can distinguish truth from falsehood and intentional behavior from accidental actions.
While these are great tools for learning empathy, it does not mean a child is ever fully developed in this regard. Empathy is something we continue to develop for the rest of our lives. But are some children born with brains designed for more empathy? Neuroscience models have traditionally attempted to divide empathy into different components – e.g., cognitive, emotional, and expressive – located in different brain regions.
However, we increasingly recognize that the pathways used to perceive and express emotion are fundamental components of the learning process to attribute intentions to emotional experiences-whether through gestures, actions, facial expressions, or words. Empathy is thus linked to sensory and motor systems, which means that, like any other aspect of development, it cannot be treated as an isolated skill. Empathy is an important part of friendship. So it really does seem that empathy can be cultivated – based on adults and peers modeling appropriate emotional responses to events, the complexity of which changes as a child grows up.
It also depends on the ability to think about, imagine, and reflect on emotional experiences, which may explain why reading fiction seems to improve empathy. But there will always be individual differences in the ability to learn from past experiences and coordinate responses. It is also important to consider that children who experience a negative or emotionally indifferent environment at home are likely to develop different expectations of emotions in others, such as having difficulty understanding more positive or complex emotions.
For example, a child who comes from hostile or neglectful parents will learn to attribute negative intentions to others. Fortunately, gone are the days when it was acceptable to be cruel to children in order to “toughen them up.”
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