Does An Early Development of Empathy Prevent Addiction?

Does An Early Development of Empathy Prevent Addiction?

Posted Jun 23, 2010

It's not uncommon for me to hear stories about how someone's addiction has negatively influenced his or her life or the lives of loved ones.

"All he cares about is weed!" "All she cares about is her drink", some of the many generic phrases family members of diverse backgrounds will usually utter out of frustration during sessions. In a previous article, I had written about a number of school programs using experiential approaches to teach empathy to students, about how the outcomes of these programs suggest a decline in bullying among the students. One can only wonder if a longitudinal study can be carried with the same students over several years to learn about their lifestyles, specifically in regards to potential bad habits.

Traditionally, drug awareness campaigns, be it for tobacco use or marijuana use, have all been based on educating the public. It would appear the basic premise for these campaigns have been based on the belief that members of the general public were largely ignorant of the side effects of mind altering substances. However in recent years, I have noticed a significant number of adolescents who would point me towards various websites that highlight the specific sides effects of a diverse number of mind altering substances and the types of high each substance would help a user achieve. In almost all of the cases I have seen, most of the adolescents had no intention of hurting themselves, but their health and welfare simply weren't issues of consideration. It was simply about achieving a good high and having a good time, regardless of however fleeting that good time would be.

In a 2009 study published in the American Journal of Addictions, Dr. Giovanni Martinotti and others found that levels of empathy quotient (EQ) was significantly lower in alcohol dependent patients compared to that of the control group members determined not to be dependent on alcohol. While the findings of this research may not be considered ground breaking to most, it explains why the twelve steps has been widely considered the most effective program in helping addicts cease their habits. It is important to note that Dr. Martinotti and fellow researchers were left uncertain as to whether it is the addiction that causes the lack of empathy or whether it's people who's lack of empathy leads them to a dangerous romance with the bottle. I personally will go with the latter theory.

Why? Simply put, based on my work with clients who have successfully worked a twelve step program. The twelve step program is a program that emphasizes empathy for self and others. People who work a genuine twelve step program for whatever their issues are, inevitably learn and practice humility, accountability and forgiveness for themselves and others. If you think about it, the principles of the twelve steps are what parents, guardians and teachers work hard to emphasize in the lives of pre- school children and older. I have witnessed the most troubled of youths make the most dramatic of turn around in eighteen to twenty four months. While their urges to self indulge never go away, their commitment for a genuine care for their well being and the well being of others helps in maintaining a long term recovery.

With Dr. Martinotti's recent study and my observations of people who genuinely work a twelve step program, it's reasonable to suggest that parents who focus on the development of empathy early in the lives of their children, increase the chances that their children will not resort to self destructive behaviors later in their minor years. But how? Especially since plenty of people including myself strongly believe that it takes a village to raise a child. With the influence of social internet sites, music, television shows tailored for minors and peers at school, how is a parent expected to get a leg up in teaching his or her child about empathy?

Role modeling. Children and adolescents may be routinely influenced by the rest of society, but at the end of the day they are paying keen attention to how their parents relate to themselves and others, and cope with life's stresses. Further, they are emulating similar responses in their relationships with themselves and others.