Empathy–The Cornerstone of Ability to Love
Empathy is the ability to understand the world from another person’s point of view AND motivation to treat another kindly based on that understanding. Some have suggested that motivation to treat another kindly happens because an empathetic person actually feels another’s feelings. Empathy is necessary for caring behavior.
Empathy has an emotional and a thinking component. To have empathy means to feel another's feelings (pain, sorrow, joy and other emotions). To have empathy one must also understand intellectually.
Empathy is the cornerstone of ability to love, and therefore empathy is at the core of good character.
Individuals with antisocial personality disorder lack empathy. Those with addiction have impaired empathy, and children with ADHD have a difficult time developing empathy. Other disordered people (narcissists), also completely lack the capacity to place themselves in another’s shoes.
It is interesting to observe that, those with antisocial personality disorder and narcissism do have some ability to understand another’s point of view. They are also very skilled at manipulation– the art of using this understanding for exploitation.
Empathy is both genetically determined and a learned skill. The development of empathy begins very early in life. The seeds for empathy are planted by responsive parenting during the infant-toddler period. Empathy then begins to grow during preschool. However, it is during the elementary school years that empathy either takes root and becomes a way of life or emotional callousness sets in. Empathetic teens really blossom and give joy to those around them. Teens that lack empathy are like thorny bushes– you try to avoid them.
One popular song says, “I feel sad when you’re sad, I feel glad when you’re glad, if you only knew what I’m going through, I just can’t smile without you.” This song describes what it is like to have empathy for a loved person. It also describes how your child feels about you. When parents express too much sadness (because of depression), or anger (because of poor impulse control and marital discord), children become overwhelmed. At risk children are particularly prone to becoming overwhelmed by a lot of emotion because they were not born with a good “control center.”
Children that are overwhelmed are blocked from developing empathy. Since they can’t cope with all those emotions, these children learn a habit of ignoring feelings.
Just like any other skill that children learn (like reading or playing a musical instrument), the skill of empathy requires practice and can be trained. Skills not practiced decline and abilities can be lost.
Studies show that children with ADHD may have a difficult time developing empathy. Empathy training is especially important for these kids,
Just Like His Father? and The Child Well-Being Workbook present a comprehensive program for improving your at risk child's empathy.
Children who are under stress from trauma or difficult life circumstances are not in a position to practice empathy. Similarly children who are focused on competition and social dominance do not practice empathy. In order to practice empathy, children must be in an affectionate, loving mood. (This is also true for parents!)
Without the skill of empathy, a boy cannot grow up to be a responsive father, or caring husband. In our times, boys are encouraged to be competitive and outright aggressive. The television they watch and their games, especially video games, involve violence and give them practice ignoring empathetic feelings. It is no wonder then, that boys especially, have a difficult time developing empathy. Empathy training can improve empathy in boys!
Parents have said to me, "Doctor, I don't want my boy to be a wimp." Teaching a boy the skill of empathy does not make him a wimp! Not teaching a boy empathy skills robs him of his ability to love.
Instead of encouraging your son or daughter to be competitive and aggressive, encourage your child to learn to do many things well. Children who feel competent in school, sports, music and/or art can afford to be loving and empathetic. In other words, teach your child to compete with himself and strive to do his best rather than try to best others.
Competency and empathy go hand in hand. Empathy is part of emotional intelligence. Therefore, a person who is empathetic is more intelligent.
For more on building the skill of empathy, see Just Like His Father? and The Child Well-Being Workbook.