A review of 72 studies by a University of Michigan psychologist compared students from 1979 with those of 2009 and found that 40% fewer would agree with statements like “I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective” and “I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me.”
But studies also show that both animals and humans exhibit innate signs of empathetic behavior. Neuroscience tells us that the same brain regions that process our first-hand experiences of pain activate when we observe other people in pain.
So although it may seem empathy is a natural quality someone either has or doesn’t, actually it is a complex bundle of abilities that can be taught and can also can be unlearned. Specifically it is the ability to:
• Have a self-awareness that enables us to distinguish our own feelings from
those of others.
• Put ourselves in someone else’s shoes by understanding another person’s
perspective even if it is different from our own.
• Manage our emotional responses.
These skills might be the heart of effective grown-up social skills and indeed they are. They are necessary to function effectively in family and work life. But evidently in our increasingly every-man-and-woman-for-themselves world we are losing our grasp on abilities that we’ve relied upon since our days of hunting and gathering when we had to work together in groups, not only to succeed, but to survive.
How do we reverse this trend?
Here are a few of the things I have learned from my work with both children and adults about we can do to foster and preserve the skills required for compassion that enable us to care about both ourselves and others:
Care about our kids’, our friends’ and our family members’ feelings and thoughts. If we don’t care, they probably won’t either.
Many of the children and adults I see have been wounded by uncaring relationships in which they were discounted, ignored, abused or maligned by those who should have been loving and compassionate. I’ve actually watched teens who were sensitive and caring young people when I met them turn before my eyes into sullen, rebellious kids because of bullying, unfair discipline at school or mistreatment by parents who try to “whip them in shape” instead of listening and understanding their new and ever-changing young worlds.
Let’s try to remember or at least imagine what it’s like to be a kid again and take their ups and downs seriously, treating them with the respect we so wanted when we were young and hope they will learn to show toward us.
Demonstrate empathy ourselves toward the pain and suffering of others.
There are ample opportunities every day to introduce our children to others who are suffering. The way we respond will shape how they respond. If we ignore, laugh off or make light of others’ pain so will they.
“It’s just a horse.” I heard a father say when his son expressed concern about a mare at the stables that had been left standing for hours in blazing heat with no shade or water. “That’s what happens if you don’t do well in school,” a mother told a daughter who seemed worried about a poor family in her neighborhood.
These could have each been a teachable moment. As can the many news reports of injured or abandoned animals, the homeless and ill or poverty-stricken people in our country and elsewhere.
Demonstrate how empathy can lead to caring action.
If we find a stray wounded pet the yard, for example, ask our children to join us in protecting it while we contact someone who will safely help the creature or take care of it ourselves if that’s possible. Ask you children to help cook or take a meal to a sick and ailing neighbor. Volunteer with your children at groups that care for others.
Invite our children to imagine what it’s like to be someone else. Ask your kids:
“What do you think It would be like to _________________?”
“How would you feel if ____________?”
“What do you think your friend was feeling when he got smacked in the back of the head?”
“What do you imagine he might be thinking? How would you feel and think if that happened to you?”
Then listen carefully to what they say. If they think it’s funny or say they don’t care, ask them how come they feel that way. We might just be surprised. I know I was when a young boy told me how he felt when a boy was attacked at school. “I hope he hurt a lot” he said, “because maybe now he knows how I feel.”
Help our children to be able to recognize and name their feelings.
We can do this by drawing faces of various feelings like mad, sad, glad and scared. We can ask them to tell us how they know what someone is feeling. We can demonstrate feelings by making faces ourselves and asking them guess what we’re feeling.
Hug your kids. Snuggle together around a campfire or on the couch while watching a movie. Offer comfort and do fun things with you them that they think are fun.
Ask what your kids would like to do and enjoy their enjoyment by doing it with them, even if it wasn’t something you would have picked. Do thoughtful things little things like fixing their favorite meal or shopping with them for the perfect pillow.
When we experience something pleasant like a hug, a kindness, a pleasant physical activity or positive social interactions, our bodies produce oxytocin, a naturally occurring hormone known as the “feel good” hormone (never to be confused with the drug Oxycontin or Oxycodone). It increases empathy, enhances communication, supports bonding and promotes a sense of calm, loving and healing.
Come to think of it, since kids are much more likely to do what we do instead of what we say, let’s apply these same empathetic concepts to ourselves by treating ourselves in the same empathetic way we want our children to learn to treat the world.
How to Foster Compassion in Children Los Angeles Times, 9/1/13
Empathy and the Brain Parenting Science.
The Oxytocin Factor: Tapping The Hormone Of Calm, Love, And Healin, Kerstin Uvnas Moberg, Kerstin Uvnäs-Moberg, 2003.