Everyone recognizes empathy when they see it – the ability to share another’s feelings and emotions. It seems to come naturally to some children. Others seem unable to “walk in someone else’s shoes” or even notice another’s reaction or feelings as different from their own.
For years it was assumed that some children are just more sensitive or intuitive than others. It’s in their nature to be altruistic and kind. Science now shows that there is much more to it.
Empathy is shaped by an interaction of environmental and biological processes that occur over the course of development. These take place within the context of children’s early attachment relationships, in which experiences of connection or bonding occur, as well as episodes of social rejection. In secure attachment relationships, episodes of rejecting behavior are quickly repaired by the caregiver. Reparation does not occur in insecure or disorganized attachment relationships. As a result, children learn to expect to be rejected by others.
In either case, these experiences link the circuits in the brain responsible for social behavior and physical pain. These connect with the circuitry that enables children to discriminate between themselves and others. The interactions between these circuits are the basis for empathic behavior. Children use their own experiences with pain and self-soothing as a model for what the people around them need in similar situations. When caregivers have been a source of comfort to them, they are motivated to reach out to others to reduce their distress.
Early childhood trauma interferes with the development of these neural pathways. As a result, children with early trauma histories are less inclined than peers to notice or seek to alleviate the distress of others. This is due in part to their blunted affect which limits awareness of their own discomfort, as well as their compromised ability to self-soothe.
The effects of trauma on the medial prefrontal cortex also plays a role. Traumatized children have a limited ability to interpret the thoughts and feelings of others. Difficulty inferring another’s intentions makes it hard for them to predict how people will think or act. This leads to errors in social cognition, as well as difficulty with inferential comprehension in reading and math.
Strategies to promote empathy in children
- Provide time at the end of an activity or academic task to reflect on what children experienced participating. Did they enjoy what they did? If so, why? If not, what could be changed to make it better next time?
- Encourage children to play the game “What Were They Thinking?” All it takes is having a discussion about the possible intentions behind the behavior of a character in a book, film, or a real person in the public media. Encourage discussions of different points of view, including how people come to different conclusions based on the same information or data.
Read more in Reaching and Teaching Children Who Hurt: Strategies for Your Classroom, 2008. Available at www.amazon.com