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Empathy: Where Kindness, Compassion, and Happiness Begin

Part 1: Empathy is important, but more complex and nuanced than it seems.

Ahdieh Ashrafi/Flickr
Source: Ahdieh Ashrafi/Flickr

If you observe a kindergarten class at circle time, you might find the kids having noisy fun, laughing and jumping as the teacher smiles and moves with them. Shifting gears to prepare for a story, the teacher’s body language becomes quieter, more focused, more serious. The most attuned kindergarteners will detect the shift and settle down. Others will notice the change in the group's energy and join in. A few others will remain unaware and continue wiggling, needing one or more requests to settle down. And a straggler or two may be entirely oblivious to the group energy as well as to the teacher’s requests.

As with so many other human attributes, people vary in their genetic predispositions for experiencing and showing empathy—some people are more easily and naturally empathetic than others—but everyone can learn to be empathetic. Like pretty much everything else, with motivation, time, effort, and learning opportunities, empathy can develop.

Different Kinds of Empathy

Empathy is the ability to understand and share someone else’s feelings, to the extent of imagining what the other person is thinking or feeling, and of responding with care. It is at the root of your child’s ability to be kind and compassionate, and essential for making and keeping friends. It is also an important factor in academic and career success and an essential leadership skill.

Emotion researchers have distinguished among three different processes, each of which is sometimes referred to as empathy. In order to help your child develop empathy, it’s useful to see the different components of this umbrella term, and also to realize that each type of empathy can have a dark side, in addition to its obvious benefits.

  1. Cognitive empathy. This is also called perspective-taking, and refers to the intellectual ability to see and identify other people's emotions. This is an important friendship and parenting skill, but can also be used to do harm. Psychopaths and talented political operatives can be brilliant at taking advantage of others’ emotions.
  2. Emotional empathy. This is sometimes called emotional contagion, and refers to the experience of deep connection with another person, including feeling distressed when observing the other person’s distress. Emotional empathy enriches parenting and other meaningful relationships, but it becomes a problem when the person is overwhelmed by emotional responses to others, sometimes leading to burnout in nursing, teaching, counseling, and other helping professions. Emotional empathy can also distract from an accurate judgment of what the other person really needs.
  3. Compassionate empathy. This is also called empathic concern, and refers to the desire to care for others when they’re vulnerable or distressed. This kind of empathy includes not only understanding a person’s predicament, and feeling their feelings with them, but also being moved to help, if needed. As with emotional empathy, it is a wonderful attribute, but can lead to burnout if it gets out of balance.

Each of these forms of empathy is useful and appropriate in the right circumstance, but problematic when misapplied. I once received a helpful piece of advice about the limits of empathy: When someone has fallen into an emotional well, they don’t want you climbing down into the well with them (emotional empathy). They’d much rather you see and understand the problem they’re experiencing (cognitive empathy), and throw them down a rope (compassionate empathy).

In Part 2 of this series, "Empathy Milestones: How Your Child Becomes More Empathetic," I discuss the step-by-step process by which empathy develops, from parental attachment, through emotional sharing, to seeing oneself as a valuable member of a community.

In Part 3 of the series, "What Can You Do to Nurture Your Child’s Empathy?" I address the practical implications for parents: What can you do to support your child in becoming more empathetic?

Other Resources

The Science of Empathy,” by Helen Reiss

Empathy and the Development of Affective Skills,” by Anna Ratka

Narrative Empathy,” by Keith Oatley

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