Counseling Today, Features

Impressing the need for empathy

Angela Kennedy May 15, 2008

Earlier this year, a 12-year-old boy in Florida beat a 17-month-old girl to death with a wooden baseball bat because she was crying while he was watching television.

Last month, national news outlets repeatedly played segments of a videotape in which a group of girls — ages 14 to 17 — berated and savagely beat a female classmate for approximately 30 minutes after luring the 16-year-old victim into a friend’s home. The entire assault was filmed, reportedly with the intention of posting it on the Internet in hopes that it would become popular on such video sharing sites as YouTube.

Extreme examples? Yes. But also examples that have experts and the general public alike asking why empathy is a seemingly endangered quality in modern society, particularly among children and adolescents.

“Empathy can be and must be taught,” says American Counseling Association member Susan Eaves. “Our community suffers tremendously when we are only concerned with our own wants and desires and either don’t recognize the feelings of others or don’t care.” Eaves is a licensed professional counselor and behavioral specialist in the Division of Children and Youth at Weems Community Mental Health Center in Meridian, Miss.

Last month, she presented a free seminar, “Raising Compassionate Children: Developing Empathy,” to give parents specific strategies for helping children develop empathy and improve their emotional intelligence. “Lack of empathy is the biggest complaint I hear from parents and teachers,” Eaves says. “It’s just so evident right now in our society. Parents today are recognizing the problem and seem eager to change the situation but aren’t quite sure how to go about it.”

Eaves believes that low emotional intelligence (or “EQ” as opposed to “IQ”) and the seeming surge of self-centeredness in children are products of our culture putting too much emphasis on academic achievement and not enough on emotional development. Instead of trying to teach toddlers sign language and showing them flash cards, she says, parents should place priority on instilling compassion and teaching empathy.

“Emotional intelligence, we now believe, is one of the most important predictors of success in life,” Eaves says. “There are a whole host of traits that go into EQ — impulse control, delayed gratification, ability to resolve conflict, cooperation, self-motivation and, I think most important, empathy. When we put such a push on academic intelligence, we ignore the development of emotional intelligence in our children. People assume that it comes naturally or that someone else will teach our kids. The schools have tried — there are programs like character education — but parents are missing so many opportunities to develop emotional intelligence in children.”

“Empathy is the one trait that will put an end to all cruelty, violence, aggression and bullying in our children,” Eaves says in explaining why she focuses so much attention on empathy. “If we recognize and put ourselves in the shoes of other people and understand how our behavior affects them, we would absolutely choose to behave differently.”

An escalating lack of empathy

Eaves contends that an individual’s lack of empathy generally escalates over three stages: from self-centeredness to aggression or cruelty and then to lack of remorse.

Self-centeredness

“When children come to believe that their needs are more important than anyone else’s needs, then what you will see is the early signs of lack of empathy,” Eaves says. “When children are absolutely unable to see another person’s wants, desires or feelings, that self-centeredness is the very first warning sign a parent will pick up on. From there, it will turn more toward cruelty.”

Aggressive or cruel behavior

If children view their wants and needs as being more important than anything else, Eaves notes, they are likely to become cruel or aggressive in getting those wants and needs met, and to discount how this behavior affects others. This cruelty can be evidenced on both small and large scales.

Small scale

  • Exhibiting selfish behavior
  • Refusing to help out or clean up after one’s self
  • Refusing to share

Larger scale

  • Being physically aggressive
  • Instigating others to be cruel
  • Bullying
  • Being violent

“We see it and we tend to ignore it, saying that it’s just typical childhood behavior — ‘Kids are cruel.’ I don’t agree with that,” Eaves says. “I don’t think kids are born cruel. They develop that way if we don’t help them develop differently. We overlook those early warning signs and, eventually, those small-scale behaviors will turn into aggression and, in some cases, violence.”

Lack of remorse

The third stage, and biggest red flag, according to Eaves, is lack of remorse. “If they hurt another child and do not feel bad about it — whether it’s verbally, emotionally or physically — if they don’t have any remorse for their bad behavior, that’s a serious problem.”

Key factors

Eaves attributes lack of empathy and compassion for others to three key factors:

Unavailable parents

“As counselors, we have always seen parents who were unavailable or intolerant of their children,” Eaves says. “When you have children who are being raised in homes where their own parents don’t tolerate expressions of emotions, how can you expect a child to be compassionate for other people’s emotions?”

As a counselor, Eaves tells parents they have to make the time to acknowledge their children’s legitimate emotions. The children of unavailable parents are essentially taught that their needs are not important, Eaves explains. In turn, these children come to understand that other people’s needs aren’t important either.

“This type of parenting is increasing because it’s a reflection of our society. Parents are busier than ever,” she says. “There is a time to say, ‘Suck it up.’ There’s a time to tell your child, ‘That’s enough. Cope and move on.’ But I think parents, because they are so overworked and so tired, they are doing that too often because they just don’t have the time or energy to stop and deal with their kids. … They are already at their own wits’ ends, so that makes them even more easily frustrated with the child. The child starts crying, (and) the parent can’t take it.”

Overindulging parents

On the other end of the spectrum are overindulgent parents who protect their children at all costs. “They want their child in a bubble so they never have to experience any bad feelings,” Eaves says. “They are the parents that go to the school and yell at the teacher for giving a student a bad grade. They are parents that pitch fits because their child is on the bench during the baseball game. These kids never hear the word ‘no.’ They are endlessly indulged and given very few limits and far too much power in the household. So, now you have a very self-centered child who believes that their needs and desires are more important than anyone else’s.”

These children can be very sweet-natured, Eaves notes, but they are only happy for others when they are happy themselves. “When you have a parent who protects their child from every little disappointment, then the child cannot consider what another’s position might be or what another’s plight might be,” she says.

Exposure to violent media

“This absolutely plays a key role in the development of empathy,” Eaves says. “A video game that is aggressive in nature actually rewards aggressive behavior. The more aggressive you are, the more you shoot, the more you kill, the more points you get. Even though it’s technology and a simulation, the child is still being rewarded for unempathic behavior.”

Helping parents to help their children

In her workshop, Eaves explains six important steps parents can take to increase a child’s EQ and compassion. While the steps should be tailored depending on the age of the child, Eaves notes research has shown that by age 14, it is very difficult to teach empathy. She strongly encourages parents to begin educating their children about compassion and empathy while they are young.

1. Start using an emotional vocabulary.

Eaves encourages parents to talk to their children about the emotions of others.

  • Ask children to identify how other people are feeling. Do they look happy? Sad? Mad?
  • Ask children why they think the person is feeling that way. What might be the reason?
  • Ask children what they could do to make the person feel better.

“You have to teach children how to pick up on emotions of other people as well as their own,” Eaves says. “They have to learn to label and identify other people’s feelings. If a child is unable to pick up on those social cues in others, then they aren’t going to develop empathy. For example, when my daughter was just 1 year old, she had an Elmo doll that would move around. When it fell down, I would say to her, ‘Oh no! Elmo fell down. You should go pick him up and ask him if he’s OK.’ It seems silly, but you have to work on this from day one.”

As for older children, Eaves suggests parents watch a TV show with their “tweens” while the volume button is on mute. “Take, for instance, a Friends rerun. Mute the TV and watch the nonverbal behaviors of the characters and try to determine what they are feeling. You and your child can create your own script to the episode,” she says. “Another way would be to go to the mall and sit down to people watch. As people walk by, ask your child to identify their feelings.”

Those techniques may sound time-consuming and perhaps extreme, Eaves says, “but that kind of work isn’t necessary if you are doing it all along. If you aren’t taking advantage of the small teaching moments early on with your child, then yes, you are going to have to play catch-up.”

2. Model the behavior.

The old line “do what I say, not what I do” just doesn’t cut it when it comes to teaching compassion to children, Eaves says. Parents must walk the walk and talk the talk.

“This is probably one of the hardest things, but if you want your child to be empathetic, you have to be empathetic,” she says. “Don’t let your young kids hear you cuss out another driver on the road. Instead, take a moment and say, ‘That guy just pulled out in front of me. He must be in a hurry. Why do you think he is in such a hurry?’ Be creative and make up reasons. You have to let them see your empathy and compassion for others.”

3. Make reparations and amends.

If a child shows unempathic or cruel behavior, Eaves tells parents to move beyond simply not tolerating the behavior to requiring that the child make amends. “For every cruel thing they do, they must do two compassionate acts,” she says. “Yes, parents may be forcing it in the beginning. Maybe it’s not genuine, but all behavior is learned. Don’t just fuss at them, punish and move on. You have to make them accountable for their behavior, and they must make amends. They have to right their wrong.”

4. Expose children to the less fortunate.

Parents need to tailor this step so that it is age appropriate, but Eaves says even young children should be exposed to those who are less fortunate. Furthermore, she strongly believes that adolescents should be involved in community work on a regular basis.

“They need to be exposed to people who have a hard life,” she says. “Have them work for Habitat for Humanity one Saturday a month or work at a soup kitchen.”

With younger kids, she suggests that on birthdays or during holidays when gifts are typically exchanged, parents might have children collect some of their old toys to donate, telling them that these toys will be given to other boys and girls who don’t have any. Eaves also suggests having children pick one of their new toys to donate. “Again, if you are doing these things all along, it wont be as hard when they are 10 or 13,” she says.

5. Allow children to feel unhappiness.

“As counselors, we have to tell parents that it’s not only OK, but it’s good for their children to be frustrated, to lose and to hear the word ‘no,’” Eaves says. “When a parent comes in and says that their child had a hard time dealing with X, Y and Z — being told ‘no’ or losing — it means that the child isn’t experiencing that enough. They need to hear ‘no.’ They need to lose. If children don’t understand what it’s like to be unhappy, then they aren’t going to be able to relate to other’s unhappiness.”

Exposing children to these hardships builds resilience and helps them develop coping skills, Eaves explains.

6. Shield children from aggressive content.

“Bottom line, parents need to know what kinds of games their kids are playing,” Eaves says. “They need to educate themselves about the rating system of video games.” She adds that parents should screen video games to ensure that the games are age appropriate and should also limit the amount of time their children are allowed to play the games.

But simply monitoring what their children are watching and playing isn’t a stand-alone cure, Eaves says. Parents need to take the time to actively cultivate compassion and empathy in their children, leading by example in the process, she says. Through her workshops and seminars, she hopes to continue educating parents and child advocates while also passing on suggestions and tips to other mental health professionals about building empathy.

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