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  • Luisa Scherer

Empathy: What it Is, How it Manifests and How to Recognize it in Kids

Updated: Sep 20, 2023



The word empathy has gained a lot of popularity in the last few years and, because of this, you must have heard of this expression. However, despite its new-found popularity, have you ever wondered what it means?


Have you ever questioned how is it possible to develop empathy and from which age does it start to manifest?


We can feel empathy in several situations from an early age. When we come across completely different realities from ours, such as when we see someone being insulted by someone else or going through a situation that causes someone some kind of discomfort, we feel empathy. You can do this exercise and try to remember situations that made you feel empathy.


What is Empathy


According to the University of Cambridge’s dictionary definition of empathy, it is “the ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person’s situation”


The Greater Good magazine, from the Greater Good Science Center (GGSC) from Berkeley, published an article in which it pointed out that “emotion researchers generally define empathy as the ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling”.


When it Starts to Manifest


Feeling empathy is an emotional and cognitive experience. The emotional components of empathy are the first to emerge in the human being. Babies immediately start to reflect on the emotional states and the facial expressions of the people around them. Thanks to mirror neurons, babies as young as 18 hours usually show some response capacity regarding other babies in danger. We don’t teach babies how to do that; they are born programmed to map other people’s experiences onto their own brains and bodies.


According to Lawrence Kutner, North-American child psychologist and author of six books, kids as young as 2 years old might see their mothers crying, for example, and move to offer her what they have in hand, such as a toy or food. However, in the face of this action, it isn’t clear whether the 2-year-old kid recognizes their mother’s feeling as she cries. 


The author writes, “By the time a child is about 4 years old, he begins to associate his emotions with the feelings of others. While one child says he has a stomachache, some 4-year-olds may come over and comfort him. Others, much to the bewilderment and horror of parents and teachers, will walk over to the child and punch him in the stomach.”


“Yet in each case the healthy child is demonstrating his empathy for the one who is ill. The aggressive child does not know what to do with the skill he’s been developing. The other child’s pain makes him feel uncomfortable. Instead of running away or rubbing his own stomach, as he might have done a year earlier, he feels frustrated and lashes out.”


How to Observe and Recognize Empathy in Kids


Making Caring Common, an initiative from the University of Harvard, posted some tips for cultivating empathy


1. “Empathize with your child and model empathy for others.”


Children learn empathy both from watching us and from experiencing our empathy for them. When we empathize with our children they develop trusting, secure attachments with us.

Those attachments are key to their wanting to adopt our values and to model our behavior, and therefore to building their empathy for others.”


2. “Provide opportunities for children to practice empathy.


Children are born with the capacity for empathy, but it needs to be nurtured throughout their lives. Learning empathy is in certain respects like learning a language or a sport. It requires practice and guidance.


Regularly considering other people’s perspectives and circumstances helps make empathy a natural reflex and, through trial and error, helps children get better at tuning into others’ feelings and perspectives.”


3. “Expand your child's circle of concern.”


As parents and caretakers, it’s not only important that we model appreciation for many types of people. It’s important that we guide children in understanding and caring for many kinds of people who are different from them and who may be facing challenges very different from their own challenges.”


4. “Help children develop self-control and manage feelings effectively.”


Often when children don’t express empathy it’s not because they don’t have it. It’s because some feeling or image is blocking their empathy. Often the ability to care for others is overwhelmed, for example, by anger, shame, envy, or other negative feelings.


Helping children manage these negative feelings as well as stereotypes and prejudices about others is often what “releases” their empathy.”


Different Types of Empathy


According to psychologist, researcher and author Daniel Goleman, who wrote to Harvard Business Review about the subject, there are three types of empathy

  1. “Cognitive empathy—the ability to understand another person’s perspective;

  2. Emotional empathy—the ability to feel what someone else feels;

  3. Empathic concern—the ability to sense what another person needs from you.”

He reached these definitions based on research done by the Harvard Medical School. These studies also present the existence of a social brain, which can be explained as parts of the brains that interact in order for us to engage with one another. 


The psychologist explains that the social brain isn’t made of one small part of the human brain, since varied parts of the brain interact to perform the functions involved in social coexistence. The term “social brain” encompasses several active parts that cover the entire human brain. These active parts are implied in the actions we execute when we interact with other people. 


According to the researcher and author, these three types of empathy directly related to the social brain are paramount for communication in different types of environments, whether that’s at work, at home or in school. “When two people are in such a state, giving each other their full attention, it creates a feeling of well-being and makes space so that exchanges can happen, since they’re feeling safe and supported,” he states.


The author reiterates that our ability to truly connect with people, regardless of the situation, is extremely important for us to understand what others are telling us and what they feel. In order to improve this connection you need to know how to listen to others and ask questions.

Daniel Goleman states: “I literally feel your pain. My brain patterns match up with yours when I listen to you tell a gripping story.”


How empathy is developed


One study coordinated by Helen Riess together with other doctors from the Massachusetts General Hospital suggested that emotional empathy can be developed


To reach this conclusion, the doctor created a program that taught other doctors how to concentrate and breathe deeply through the diaphragm in order to observe interactions. “Suspending your own involvement to observe what is happening allows you to interact with “conscious awareness”, without being completely reactive”, affirmed Dr. Riess.


She states in the research that if a doctor notices she is feeling annoyed, for example, it may be a sign that the patient is also feeling disturbed.



How empathy influences kids lives


Michelle Borba, an educator, parenting child expert and author of more than 20 books, in an interview to Revista Crescer explained that “the last scientific discoveries have shown that the ability to be empathetic positively affects healthy and finances, brings happiness and contributes to the satisfaction that relationships offer, in addition to increasing the ability to overcome adversities in the future. Empathy also prepares kids to live in a globalized world and provides them with a boost to do better career-wise.


In her book Unselfie, Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World, the author dedicates an entire chapter to the importance of kids being in contact with literature.

According to her, “Books have the power to transport kids to other worlds and transform their hearts. Books can be portals to understanding distinct universes and points of view, helping our kids to be more open to differences and to cultivate new perspectives. We always feel what the characters feel. It’s like walking in their skins – emotionally, at least – identifying ourselves with their discomforts and feeling their pains. (...) That is why we need to find time for kids to read and put them in contact with books.”


By reading or listening to stories, kids can broaden their perceptions regarding their own lives and, therefore, experience empathy. Our app Truth and Tales also shares this vision since it encourages kids and adults to perceive themselves more and more. By doing so better, we can also see others more easily and, that way, be more empathetic.


Written by Débora Nazário

Translated by Mariana Gruber


EDITOR’S NOTE


Empathy is popular right now and we can see it being mentioned in several lectures of the most varied genres. People claim it’s the “skill of the future”. Despite many talking about empathy, however, in practice, most still confuse it with sympathy.


As it was said in the article above, we feel empathy when we put ourselves in someone else’s shoes – when we are able to see the situation from someone else’s perspective. It’s the ability to experience the same feelings as others.


Sympathy, on the other hand, isn’t a shared experience. Sympathy concerns our own feelings from our own judgment of a situation. To feel sympathy is to express that, despite not knowing what the other person is going through, you feel for them.


For empathy to occur, a connection between two people is indispensable, whether they know each other or not. In a world where online connection is getting easier and easier, physical ones are getting lost. We advise, therefore, that you spend some quality time with your kids away from screens and the internet.


Truth and Tales, our original app, develops empathy through interactive kids stories. This is done through the customization of the main characters, which allows kids to choose the character’s skin, eye and hair color, the hairstyle, the clothes, the accessories, etc. 


Kids could come up with the craziest combinations, but they usually put together characters whose physical traits are similar to themselves. That makes it easier for kids to put themselves in the character’s shoes, thus developing empathy.

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