Ever worry that your kid is a jerk? Or wish they’d send a thank-you note without your forcing them to do it? Empathy can be developed and encouraged in young people. Psychiatrist Daniel Siegel and social worker Tina Payne Bryson explain how.
When your toddler conks you on the head with a Tinkertoy and then laughs even though you are visibly hurt, it may be hard to imagine her becoming a caring, empathic person as she grows up. Or when your five-year-old puts on a cape and demands that everyone in the house stop what they are doing and watch a spontaneous magic show that lasts and lasts and lasts (and no, you may not go to the bathroom until it’s over!), his egocentrism can make you wonder if he will ever become someone who considers others.
We know a 16-year-old boy — let’s call him Devin — who, in many ways, behaves like a typical kid with all the problems and selfishness of most teenagers. He can make irrational decisions and is mean to his younger sister at times. But overall he consistently shows the ability to transcend self-centeredness and behave in ways that are caring and considerate. Recently, on his father’s birthday, Devin offered to skip an outing he had planned with his friends so he could spend time with his dad on the special day. He also regularly hugs his grandparents and can be expected to give up his seat for someone else on a city bus without being asked.
You might assume that Devin is simply one of those people who are empathic from birth. But you’d be wrong. When he was young, his parents worried about him because he showed very little innate ability to think of others’ feelings or consider their perspective, even as an elementary student approaching middle school. He’d consistently grab the first piece of birthday cake and the last remaining slice of pizza. It didn’t bother him when someone else was upset, and he was, frankly, a bit of a bully to his sister and sometimes his friends at school.
Don’t worry that any phase will last forever — your daughter won’t be biting her friends when she leaves for college.
Lots of parents are alarmed when they see selfish traits in their kids. But when they express these concerns to us, we remind them that the main part of the brain responsible for empathy is particularly undeveloped in young children. Empathy and caring are skills to be learned. In general, we want to caution parents about globalizing any egocentrism they might be perceiving in their kids at the moment. In truth, it’s developmentally typical for children to consider themselves first; it gives them a better chance of surviving.
Let us remind you of one important truth: in your role as a parent, “right now” is all you have to focus on. Yes, you are building skills to last a lifetime. But you’re doing so in the present moment — right now. You don’t have to let the experience of right now make you fret about what your child will be like at age 15 or 20; so much development will unfold between now and then. Even though we’re professionals who have rigorously studied development, we’ve been surprised at developmental leaps our own children have made in just weeks and months. So don’t give in to the temptation to worry that any phase — whether it’s selfishness, sleep problems, homework meltdowns, or something else — will last forever. Your daughter won’t be biting her friends when she leaves for college. (If she is, you should probably call us.) Think in smaller chunks of time, like semesters or seasons. Give your child a few months to work through this phase and know that as long as you’re there loving her, guiding her, teaching her, and providing a consistent presence, she’ll get through it and learn the skills she needs in order to thrive.
One of the most hopeful messages we ever give parents is that the skills we want to help our kids develop are built during normal interactions. The most important parenting work is done not only when we have serious, meaningful conversations with our kids, but just as often when we simply play with them, read to them, argue with them, joke with them, or hang out together.
By drawing awareness to the emotions and motivations of characters in books and movies, the parents helped their child realize these people had considerations that were quite apart from his own.
When it comes to empathy, lectures that begin, “You should care more about X because . . .” are rarely going to leave a lasting impression. Much more powerful will be the example your kids see you set and the extent to which you demonstrate what it means to listen to others, consider their perspectives and opinions, and care about them. That kind of modeling, particularly how you show compassion for them when they are having a hard time, will help your children build their capacity for empathy. And when they watch you make an effort to live a life full of concern for the people around you and an awareness of others’ needs, your kids will assume that’s just how things are done, and empathy will become more of their default approach to the world.
Devin’s parents spent time drawing his attention to other people’s experiences and minds and helping him consider the feelings of others. When they read to him, they asked questions like “What is the Lorax feeling right now? Why is he so mad at the Onceler for chopping down all the trees?” When they watched movies, they’d occasionally pause the film to ask questions like “Why do you think Travis got sad when Old Yeller started acting so differently? What do you think he should do?” Simply by drawing awareness to characters’ emotions and motivations, they helped him move outside of himself and realize that the people on the pages and the screen had their own interests and considerations that were quite apart from his own.
From there, it was easy to ask similar questions about real people. For instance, they might say, “Ms. Azizi got upset more easily than usual during class today, huh? I wonder what might have happened to her this morning before school?” Taking place in simple conversations during everyday interactions, basic questions — “Why do you think Ashley is feeling sad? How can we help?” — can build the scaffolding for an increased sense of insight, morality and an awareness of the minds of others.
Bubble-wrapping kids can prevent the full development of empathy, which often emerges directly from having experienced negative emotions themselves.
The other decision Devin’s parents made to help guide him toward being more empathic was to allow him to experience his own negative emotions. Bubble-wrapping kids can prevent the full development of empathy, which often emerges directly from having experienced negative emotions themselves. Each time Devin’s parents allowed him to feel sad or frustrated or disappointed, instead of immediately distracting him or rushing in to fix things, his potential for empathy grew, since his struggles opened up space within him to understand and identify with the pain of others. His parents sat with him and supported him in his pain, of course, but they didn’t deny or distract him from his feelings.
When Devin was very young, this might have meant holding him for an extra minute or two while he cried when his grandmother left, rather than offering cookies to get his mind off his sadness. As he grew older and faced bigger disappointments, like the time in middle school when he was abandoned by two friends on a field trip and had to sit on the bus alone, it meant listening to his fears that everyone at school hated him and he’d be friendless forever. At times like these, his parents were tempted to try to move him immediately into happiness and offer suggestions, but instead they did their best to lovingly listen and allow him to know what emotional pain feels like. Once he had expressed himself and was receptive to talking about his experience, they could then problem-solve and ask more questions about the situation, but only after allowing him to sit with his feelings.
The more we think about and practice empathy, the more empathic we can be in the future. A 2016 study of teachers made this point. A group of teachers from five different middle schools in California were asked to complete, a couple of months apart, two online modules that asked them to think about reasons for student misbehavior — the challenging social dynamics among young adolescents, the biological and hormonal changes taking place in their bodies and brains, and so on. The teachers learned about research and listened to student stories that demonstrated the link between academic success, on one hand, and a safe, caring and respectful educational environment, on the other. The modules stressed that students’ emotions and behaviors improve when they feel cared about and valued by their teachers.
You can probably guess the results. Compared to the control group — regardless of race, gender, family income, or even whether the students had previously been frequently in trouble — the suspension rate dropped when teachers were asked to think about the experiences of their students. In fact, students of the teachers who participated in this “empathy training” were half as likely to be suspended. This has a real impact, especially when you consider that suspension rates correlate with significant negative life outcomes, such as chronic unemployment and even prison.
Numerous scientific studies have demonstrated the power of empathy, not just in kids, but in adults as well. Empathy allows us to keep in mind that each of us is not only a “me,” but part of an interconnected “we.” Recognizing this combination helps produce an integrated self — which leads not only towards caring for others but also towards living a life full of meaning, connection and belonging to a larger whole.
Excerpted with permission from the new book The Yes Brain: How to Cultivate Courage, Curiosity, and Resilience in Your Child by Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson. Published by Bantam Books, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York. Copyright © 2018 by Mind Your Brain, Inc., and Tina Payne Bryson, Inc. All rights reserved.
Watch Daniel Siegel’s talk from TEDxPrague here: