Monday, November 13, 2023

Empathy on the Brain

Empathy: A word we hear more and more today, especially in discussions about children/teens and their emotional development. What exactly is empathy? Empathy is being able to put ourselves in someone else’s situation in an effort to feel what they are feeling. Sounds easy enough, right? Not always. It often gets confused with sympathy, which means feelings bad for someone. It can be difficult to practice (and even more difficult to teach) empathy when we don’t necessarily agree with or understand the other person’s feelings. The most important thing is keeping in mind that just because we do not cognitively process what that feeling “means”, we can still help this other person move through their feelings how they see fit. Any adult knows how an empathetic friend or loved one can make us feel better even in the worst moments, but the need for empathy is probably even greater when it comes to our kiddos. Why? Because empathy fosters a sense of belonging, a necessity for children and teens in all of their stages of development. When they are shown empathy (by modeling behavior), they feel worthy of the love and support they are receiving. They feel heard, seen, and understood. They don’t feel alone. 

Like many other pillars of emotional intelligence, empathy is particularly important for Highly Sensitive Kiddos. Because it tends to be harder for them to manage their feelings and reactions, and they are prone to more frequent meltdowns, a parent’s main goal is often to get them to calm down. How can we expect anyone, much less an upset child or frustrated teen, to calm down if they don’t feel understood? Think about it… imagine being in a disagreement or a tough situation that was making you feel anxious and out of control. If someone that you cared about said, “Oh, stop being silly, it’s not a big deal at all,” how would that make you feel? 

That being said, the necessity of “building” our empathic skills as adults is just as important. Our kids have much higher levels of neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity refers to the connections that neurons make in our brains and how they are either strengthened or begin to fade away depending on how often they are used. This means that everything we say, and especially everything we do, directly impacts the connections that our kiddos’ brains are developing (or not). We know that the connections we use frequently as a child are much more likely to be used frequently as an adult. If we can model empathy ourselves on a consistent basis for our children and teens, they are much more likely to internalize the lessons and also much more likely to be empathetic adults. 

How can we strengthen our own capacity for empathy and help our kids do the same? 

Observe others (body language, facial expressions, tone of voice) to try and guess what they might be feeling.

Embrace diversity by making it a point to discuss the differences among people and the value that it brings to so many situations while also recognizing our similarities.

Discuss both global current events and the current events of your child/teen/family (their day at school, family experiences, etc.) to promote a greater understanding of others.

Discuss ethical dilemmas in “real life situations,” especially with teenagers, as it can be very helpful to give them situations and discuss what they would do. “My friend doesn’t like the new girl at school, should I ask her to sit at lunch with us anyway?” Or, “I know that [friend] lied to [other friend], is it my job to get involved?” 

Be open to conflict resolution and make your child or teen an active participant. It’s important that kiddos aren’t afraid to work out problems and that they see why conflict resolution is important and how it helps all parties involved. This also teaches them so many important skills that contribute to developing their sense of empathy — how to express themselves freely but respectfully, how to be assertive when need be, how to listen, how to give and take criticism, etc. 

Remember… empathy is about trying to understand something from another’s perspective - it’s not about agreeing, disagreeing or being sympathetic. Empathic understanding can feel very supportive to someone on the receiving end, it makes it so much easier to relate to others, and it helps us all become more tolerant and reflective. These are all wonderful skills for healthy interpersonal experiences!