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Power of empathy: How to develop and enhance it?

Updated on August 19, 2016

Empathy is the ability to feel or imagine another person’s emotional experience. The ability to empathize is an important part of social and emotional development, affecting an individual’s behavior toward others. And, therefore, it affects the quality of social relationships. The development of empathy begins in childhood and continues to develop as children move toward becoming empathic adults.

By the age of two, children normally begin to display empathetic behavior by having an emotional response to another person’s emotional state. Even earlier, at one year of age, infants have some rudiments of empathy. Children between the ages of 7 and 12 years appear to be naturally inclined to feel empathy for others in pain. The research also found that additional aspects of the brain were activated, when youngsters saw another person intentionally being hurt by another individual, including regions in the brain involved in moral reasoning.

Factors determining empathy -

Empathy is an important life skill that helps us connect and relate to others. One begins to learn this skill in childhood but continues to do so as an adult. A number of factors may have impact on its development:

  • Genetics – Genetics play an important role in one’s ability to develop empathy. Though there is no specific gene for empathy, some of the personality characteristics that influence empathy may be heritable. The personality characteristics that may impact the development of empathy include traits like agreeableness or sensitivity. Other inherited characteristic of callousness may predispose some children to lack of empathy.
  • Cultural influence – In some cultures, a high value is placed on pro-social behaviors and an empathetic response. In other cultures, the same values may not apply or may not apply to the same extent. It has been found that the cultural background of the family may affect a child's ability to develop or the capacity to display empathy.
  • Abuse - Exposure to parental abuse or neglect can have a detrimental impact on a child or teen's ability to cultivate empathy. It has been found that abused or neglected children often have tremendous difficulty relating to others, because they are unable to see another’s point of views and, therefore, usually display serious deficits in empathy.
  • Parenting style - Children learn by imitating and observing parental behavior and attitudes, the process also referred to as modeling. Parental modeling may have a strong influence on the development of empathy in children and teens. Children, who observe parents displaying empathetic behaviors, such as kindness and calmness, may be better equipped to develop these behaviors. Contrarily, if parents treat people with rudeness or callousness, the child will also learn that this is acceptable and appropriate behavior.
  • Temperament - Temperament is comprised of a variety of attributes that form the early basis for personality development. Temperament is thought to be present since birth, having biological foundations. So, individual differences in expression of empathy based on temperament may, in part, reflect genetic influences on empathy development.
  • Parent- child relationship - A measure of quality of child-parent relationship is the security of a child’s attachment to their parents. Securely attached children display behaviors consistent with a trusting, loving relationship with their parents. These typically include being upset by the parent’s absence and being calmed by the parent’s presence, and feeling comfortable enough to explore their surroundings. It has been found that securely attached preschoolers engage in more empathic responding than insecurely attached children. There is also evidence that a secure attachment may be more important for empathy development among some children than among others, which demonstrates that empathy is likely to be influenced by an interaction of other factors within child-parent relationship.

How to develop and enhance empathy –

Though empathy begins to develop in childhood, we can nurture its growth throughout our life. Since it is a radical force for personal and social transformation, we should make empathy an attitude so as to improve the lives of everyone around us. Below are mentioned some habits of empathic people, which we can emulate in order to enhance empathy in us:

  • Cultivate curiosity for others – Empathetic people possess strong curiosity for strangers. We know that children, who are highly inquisitive, develop more empathy. Highly empathic people retain their natural inquisitiveness throughout life. They find other people more interesting than themselves. Curiosity expands our empathy, when we talk to people outside our usual social circle, encountering lives and worldviews very different from our own.
  • Challenge prejudices – We all have our own preconceptions and prejudices, which we always express in our day-to-day interactions with people and situations. They obstruct our observation of the people so that we cannot understand them fully, thereby adversely affecting our expression of empathy toward them. Highly empathic persons always challenge their preconceptions and prejudices and try their best to discover commonalities.
  • Be an attentive listener – By listening hard, we can grasp the emotional needs of the other person. But only listening is not enough. Another requirement is to make ourselves vulnerable after removing our masks and revealing our feelings to others so as to create strong empathic bonds. Empathy is a two way process based upon mutual understanding.
  • Widen your circle of empathy – We need to empathize with people, whose beliefs we don’t share. We can understand the thinking and motivations of others by trying to step into their shoes, which will make us understand their perspectives better. Highly empathic people have a habit of stepping into the shoes of others, which is a great social skill for developing good social relationships.
  • Share yourself with others - The best way to gain trust of others is to open up to share some of your feelings with them. By doing so, you will give others permission to share more of themselves, allowing for deeper conversation. By showing your vulnerability, you will let others share their joys, sorrows and struggles with you.

The bottom-line –

The experts theorize that environmental factors, such as parenting style and parent-child relationships, as well as genetics and individual temperament play a significant role in the development of empathy in children.

It is now apparent that empathy is an inherent trait in humans, mostly mediated by important factors. However, these factors can be modified or changed, thereby showing that empathy can be developed or enhanced by people.

Empathy promotes pro-social relationships, helps mediate aggression, and allows us to relate to others. All of them make empathy an important emotion among children as well as in adults that needs to be cultivated.

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