blog header 9.22.jpg
  • Heather Davis

Cultivating Empathy: Models, Exposure & Hard Conversations

Children are the living messages we send to a time we will not see.” – John F. Kennedy

Societal divisions are on display everywhere, and like a deadly virus I know, seem to be highly contagious and on the rise.

How can we help the next generation begin to bridge the gap?

The answer begins and ends in the development and evolution of a uniquely human superpower: empathy.

Nature-nurture combo

Part of empathy is innate. We are born with the capacity for empathy but it is also a learned behavior that is either developed and encouraged in our childhoods…or not.

Empathetic tendencies, like many of the characteristics that make us who we are, stem from both our genetics and the environment within which we are raised.

What starts as basic mimicry as infants, can develop over time into a more complex empathy.

Empathy develops early

Research shows that most brain development happens during the first year of life.

Developmental psychologist Rebecca Saxe of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), underscores the brain’s impressive early growth by explaining how the brains of a 3-year-old and a 33-year-old are more alike, than those of a 3-year-old and a baby.

With this early brain development also come the signs of basic empathy.

Neuroscience researcher Jean Decety found that 12-month-old babies are able to feel the distress of another and try to comfort. He found that even before 18 months, young children showed voluntary and unrewarded helping behaviors.

Research studies show that by the second year of life, the brain, emotions and behavior are already being harnessed together in the ability to show concern for, and act upon, the pain of others.

A person’s a person, no matter how small.” – Dr. Suess

Early attachments, mimicry & empathy

The foundation of empathy is formed in childhood. As infants, attachments and connections with parents and caretakers set the groundwork for our emotional and social development.

Neuroscientists have developed two theories to explain how empathy begins and grows.

Simulation Theory is the unconscious mirroring of another’s emotions, allowing us to simulate and attempt to feel ourselves, someone else’s pain or joy.

Babies learn to smile and mock the facial expressions of caregivers. Unconscious mimicry is a basic part of human communication.

People of all ages have shown to copy facial and body language, tone of voice and the movements of others when interacting to encourage feelings of kinship and connection. Success depends on the skill of perception and the ability to read non-verbal cues.

Simulation foreshadows empathy. The understanding of what others feel by observing and listening to the feelings of others is the basis for successful social interaction.

Cognitive empathy

A second idea, the Theory of Mind, brings the brain into the equation.

As the brain develops, cognitive empathy adds our thoughts and knowledge to physical mimicry.

Empathy evolves slowly over time as it is modeled and information is gained. This allows us to develop theories and predict how others may think and feel.

Parenting & empathy development

To be compassionate and to learn empathy requires ongoing encouragement and modeling, in order to take hold and flourish.

A long-term study by Zhou and team (2002) showed connections between how parenting style and parents’ own emotional expression translate into the development of empathy and social competence in children. Researchers evaluated additional factors including disciplinary style and parents’ emotional responses.

Greater empathy and social competence were found in children with supportive and affectionate parents who expressed more positive emotions in front of their offspring (but not solely directed towards their child).

Empathic and kind role models, able to articulate supportive emotions openly, help breed the same. Beyond that, research shows how empathy can be taught and encouraged in children.

Teaching, encouraging empathy

The Making Caring Common Project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, has found that there are several fundamental ways that empathy can be encouraged within families.

Beyond showing empathy for our own children, discussing feelings and encouraging young children to take another’s perspective in social interactions is an important part of empathy development.

Teaching language of emotions and learning to discuss their own, as well as the feelings of others, helps children identify better with themselves, develop self-awareness and self-control.

As kids begin to recognize their own feelings, they also start to understand the thoughts, emotions and motives of those around them, helping in making connections and in conflict-resolution.

Real empathy relies on having these cognitive understandings of the experiences, feelings and motivations of others. This lays important groundwork for emotional intelligence – found to be a key factor in success in life.