What is empathy, and what does it mean to be empathic toward children and young people? We may distinguish three different abilities often lumped together as empathy: the ability to identify emotions in others, the ability to understand causes and anticipate effects of emotions in others, and the ability or tendency to respond appropriately (e.g. caringly).
These abilities should not be taken for granted, and nor is empathy an absolute good: the more the better. In some cases there is oversensitivity when confronted with another person’s emotions, leading to incapacitating personal distress in the observer. Or a person who overreacts with personal distress may be motivated to relieve his own distress rather than help another person. In Autism Spectrum Disorders there is sometimes an oversensitivity to others that is overwhelming and leads to a shutting down of empathic response, and dysfunction in interpersonal relations.
The physiological components of empathic feelings and behavior are very complex and not yet clearly understood. Some research has found that people who are overwhelmed by their own feeling of distress are not likely to provide help to others. Other research has found a relationship between personal distress and the negative emotion of anger, and anger is associated with a decrease in perspective-taking. There is “evidence that parents at high risk of abusing a child are the ones who more frequently report distress at seeing an infant cry” (1).
When a parent discovers that a child has a serious disease, the parent sometimes “identifies” with the child’s suffering. The parent feels and behaves as if the parent has the disease too. That is the same way an infant reacts to a caregiver’s distress, and is inappropriate for an adult the child is dependent on for care and protection. The last person in the world a seriously ill child needs is a parent who behaves as though he is seriously ill too. Over-identification has been likened to an infantile blurring of boundaries.
Parents sometimes claim “I know my child,” and therefore are more competent than anyone else to make decisions for the child’s benefit. Although that is certainly true in many cases, it is also true that a child’s personality is sometimes very different depending on where he is and who he is with. The child a parent “knows” at home with his family is not always the same child in school with his teachers or with his friends in the playground. Some parents have never witnessed their child’s creativity and resourcefulness when interacting with others he is not dependent on.
In very early childhood some individuals already demonstrate an understanding of other people’s emotional states, the moral quality of acts (right or wrong), and respond in ways that attempt to comfort another person who appears in distress. Children want to feel strong, competent, and autonomous, and they deserve recognition of their competence. How many children would ever say: “Thanks, Mom! I appreciate you making me feel dependent, incompetent, helpless and defenseless”?
Granted, it’s easy for me to criticize parents because I only have to deal with children a few hours a day. I am never forced to lose sleep because of a sick child. That doesn’t mean parents are above criticism; it means that parents deserve comprehension.
In healthy individuals empathy is improved through learning, and increases with experience and age. A way to improve children’s empathy is to give them challenging duties and responsibilities such as managing other children. I allow pupils to take turns every day acting as “assistant teacher,” a privilege they value highly and are willing to work for. Conversely, passivity and isolation impair the development of normal empathy.
We should recognize that the capacity for empathy isn’t unlimited even in normally empathic individuals. The further away someone is, in time or space, the more difficult it is to feel appropriate empathy. That is one reason why children prefer their own company: it’s easier for children to feel empathy for each other.
There is also some evidence that receiving empathy makes the recipients behave more pro-socially. Conversely, not receiving accurate empathy may have an even greater, negative, impact on interpersonal behavior. There is evidence that adults often misjudge the pain of other adults (underestimating or overestimating), let alone children. For that reason some parents, teachers or other rare adults who can feel accurate empathy for little people very far from their own age, are especially valuable to children and their community.
In contrast, some individuals never develop normal empathy. The heartless psychopath is the classic case. A healthy adult perceives a child’s distress and feels a desire to stop the source of the distress. But a psychopath does not perceive a child’s distress, or is not inhibited by it, or may even feel pleasure when witnessing distress. A child’s distress is not aversive to the psychopath.
Some sex offenders against children (SOAC) lack empathy for children as well as the parents. An SOAC fails to anticipate the sometimes negative reaction of the child to abusive behavior, and the sometimes ferocious reaction of the parents or other adults when they find out. Many SOACs are the parents themselves.
Some prudish parents lack empathy for children too, as when a child innocently reports a positive or neutral experience of sex play, but the parent insists on a dramatic public scandal, criminal prosecution, or family break-up to satisfy the parent’s own desire for vengeance – which is unwanted by the child and may not be in the child’s best interest. Such parents and other “concerned” adults add to the child’s distress, rather than alleviating it. An adult who is very upset may fail to predict the negative consequences to the child of the adult’s own overreaction.
Some parents and other adults had no sexual experience or only negative sexual experience when they were young, and have been misinformed about the supposed “trauma” of early sexual experience by mass hysteria spread by the sex abuse rescue business. So some adults mistakenly assume that all sexual experience between different age groups “must be” negative, and hence tend to over-protect children.
When a case of child sexual abuse is discovered the parent or other first responder’s rage interferes with their ability to identify the child’s sometimes neutral or positive reaction. I think that in some cases the parents or other adults are horrified precisely because the child did not react negatively as they expected she “should have.”
One foster parent described with horror that her foster child (who had been taken away from the biological mother due to sexual abuse) frequently exhibited an obvious desire to be sexually stimulated. The foster parent was not horrified at the child’s behavior due to empathy; the foster parent was horrified because she failed to empathize with the child’s desire for sex play. We should feel profound empathy for the child’s horror in being forcibly separated from her parent.
It is not surprising if an adult who has been exposed to the hysterical propaganda against early sex play may panic when finding out a child has experienced sexual abuse. But empathy that is accurate (appropriate) necessitates calm as well as the recognition of differences between a child’s and adult’s mindset. A child who has not been exposed to the same anti-sex information directed at adults, may not react with the same panic. An individual child’s values may be very different from an adult’s values, and a child’s initial reaction to an experience depends on the child’s values not the adult’s values.
It is known that stress is inversely correlated with one’s sense of control, and self-esteem correlates with having a choice in decision-making. Does an abuser give the child a choice in the abuse? After discovery, does the parent give the child a choice in what happens next? A child’s sanity is not cultivated when an insensitive abuser ignores the child’s preferences, and then the enraged parent ignores the child’s preferences as well.
Healthy empathy is characterized by a humble awareness of your own limitations, and an effort to learn as much as possible about the unique external context in each individual case, and the particular child’s point of view, rather than recklessly assume you know everything instantly, and then react selfishly to satisfy your own emotional needs or personal interests.
Children’s feelings do not occur in isolation but in a bodily context. Empathic understanding requires not only listening to children’s words and seeing their facial expressions, but also perceiving what the child’s body is expressing. When a child presses her knee or foot against a man’s groin, she is obviously motivated by curiosity, not an intention to sexually stimulate the adult.
But the soft pressure reflexively causes the healthy male to become erect. Neither the child’s action nor the adult’s reflexive reaction is abnormal, unnatural or unhealthy. Analogously, some mothers report genital erection and even orgasm during breast-feeding.
Empathy entails a letting go of inhibition. The child has active mirror neurons that may foster mimicry and she may become erect too. Or her clitoris may have already been erect. If the child expresses a desire to engage in innocent sex play in an appropriate context and with respect of safe limits, the empathic adult validates the child’s normal and healthy curiosity. What normally happens between a healthy adult and child is embodied cognition and embodied empathy.
Physiological research supports the view that people tend to mimic the facial expressions and bodily state (e.g. heart rate and electrodermal activity) observed in another person. Studies using functional magnetic resonance imaging suggest that mirror neuron networks are activated during empathy, and not merely in motor mimicry (2).
Some experiments using F18-fluorodeoxyglucose in Positron Emission Tomography support a model of empathy in which both cognitive empathy and affective empathy networks are activated in the brain (3). If that model is correct, then emotion needs to be controlled to avoid interfering with cognition. An adult in the grip of an intense, negative emotion is not likely to behave empathically toward a child.
Ideally, empathic attunement and resonance between a child and adult include these steps: 1) the child expresses her feelings in some way, 2) the adult perceives what the child is feeling, and tries to understand, 3) the adult communicates his tentative understanding to the child, and asks if the adult’s interpretation is correct, 4) the child feels understood, and 5) the child expresses her awareness that her feelings are being accurately understood.
In patients with certain kinds of brain damage, some research has found that impairment in cognitive flexibility is associated with impairment in empathy. Some adults, especially those individuals who are sexually dysfunctional, enviously resent and disapprove of any form of sex play that may include genital erection even passively and incidentally. But responsible caregiving requires empathy, and empathy entails flexibility; adults who are rigid and unable to let go of their own inhibition are not empathic.
Complex pro-social behavior (including mating, reproductive and parenting behavior) depends on flexibility in turning off defensive and stress mechanisms when they are inappropriate. Some individuals who have been mentally castrated and are sexually dysfunctional have never learned to view sexuality as non-threatening. Such individuals are not good models for children’s healthy development.
Boys and girls are naturally curious about sexuality and have a healthy desire to seek pleasure. Denying a child’s natural and healthy tendencies sets the child up for a sense of failure and toxic self-reproach. Empathy requires opening up to the child’s sensations, and being perceptive to what is important to the child at the moment. Children at every age need and deserve empathic understanding and empathic resonance. That is how healthy adult models help children learn to become more empathic.
1. Decety, Jean and Ickes, William (eds.) The Social Neuroscience of Empathy. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA. 2009. Most of my references to evidence are cited in this book.
2. Schulte-Ruther, M., et al. (2007). Mirror neuron and theory of mind mechanisms involved in face-to-face interactions: An fMRI approach to empathy. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 19, 54-72. Cited in Decety.
3. Shamay-Tsoory, S.G., et al. (2005). The neural correlates of understanding the other: a PET investigation of empathic accuracy. NeuroImage, 27, 468-472. Cited in Decety.