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Education, Health, Parenting, Special Needs, Stages

Do Children Lack Empathy? 

January 1, 2022
By Susan Marquez

While bullying is not a new thing, the awareness of bullying among children has increased in recent years.

Some have blamed social media for taking bullying from the playground to the Internet with cyberbullying on the rise. The argument can be made that the real problem is the lack of empathy in children. 

Empathy Develops at an Early Age

Empathy is something that develops as a child ages. The ability to feel for others and mentally put yourself in their place is something that is learned, and parents can help foster empathetic behavior and understanding. Sharon Perkins writes in an article on the hello MOTHERHOOD website that it is unrealistic to expect a child under five to truly empathize with others, because they are not yet able to put themselves in another person’s shoes. She says that true empathy for others normally doesn’t start to blossom until age eight or nine. 

Claire Lerner and Rebecca Parlakian wrote about how to help toddlers develop empathy in an article they wrote for the Zero to Three website. “While empathy can be a complex skill to develop, toddlers can understand that they are separate individuals, and that others can have different thoughts and feelings. They can also begin to recognize that most people experience the same common feelings of happiness, surprise, anger, and sadness.”

Milestones in Empathy

Lerner and Parlakian state there are certain milestones in empathy that are important in the development of a child, including establishing a loving relationship with parents, as feeling accepted and understood by parents helps a child learn how to accept and understand others as he/she grows. They say that babies start using social referencing by the age of six months, such as looking at a parent when he/she greets a visitor to the home to see if the new person is good and safe. “The parent’s response to the visitor influences how the baby responds.” Lerner and Parlakian state that while a child may be encouraged to say, “I’m sorry,” it doesn’t necessarily help a toddler learn empathy. “A more meaningful approach may be to focus on the other person’s feelings: ‘Look at Sierra–she’s very sad. She’s crying. She’s rubbing her arm where you pushed her. Let’s see if she is okay.’ This helps children make the connection between the action (shoving) and the reaction (a friend who is sad and crying).”

Empathy is closely tied with emotions, and learning to manage emotions helps develop healthy identities, maintain supportive relationships with friends or family members, as well as make responsible decisions. Sara Potler LeHayne, founder and CEO of Move This World, has identified Social Emotional Learning (SEL) as an integral part of human development. According to Move This World, SEL encompasses everything from goal setting to stress management, which provides both children with tools they can use to express themselves authentically and appropriately. Through her Dance 4 Peace program, LeHayne has created a series of train-the-teacher instructional videos that incorporate dance and movement into lessons about empathy which can be used in the classroom. Based on her experience, LeHayne recognized that children express themselves more authentically through movement and learn more comprehensively through physical experience. 

Warning Signs of Lack of Empathy

Michele Borba, a parenting and child expert and educational psychologist has written extensively about empathy in children, specifically about when to worry about a lack of empathy. Signs that a child may have low empathy, according to Dr. Borba, are when a child never cries at movies or is concerned if his/her friends are hurt, if a child is mean, and seems to enjoy when their classmates cry, or that they don’t care about anyone but themselves. Parents may wonder if they can have influence in a child’s capacity for empathy. Dr. Borba says that research says that empathy can absolutely be cultivated in a child. The problem comes when parents think that lack of empathy is a phase a child will outgrow. 

“Compassion and kindness comprise the essence of humanity,” says Dr. Borba. “Empathy is the critical emotional ability to put oneself in the other person’s shoes to understand their feelings and situations. Because lack of empathy is a risk for aggression and violence, instilling empathy in our youth is essential.” 

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