Empathy is an important part of life, and it’s a trait that must be developed so we can have satisfying relationships with others. Not only does empathy allow us to understand other people; it also motivates us to take action to help others, according to research. Despite the importance of empathy, not everyone has a strong innate ability to empathize with other people. This may lead you to wonder whether empathy develops naturally, or whether it’s something that has to be taught. Learn some answers here.
What is Empathy?
Before diving into the development of empathy, it’s helpful to have a definition of this trait. Researchers have described empathy as the natural ability to understand what other people are feeling. Empathy goes beyond knowing how another person feels; it also involves the degree to which we are able to feel what another person is feeling. Someone who is highly empathetic can identify emotions in other people and share those emotions. For example, they may notice when others are sad and feel sad for them.
It is important to develop the ability to empathize with others, not only for the good of society but also for personal happiness. In fact, research has found that people who are more empathetic toward their significant others are more satisfied in their relationships. Empathetic people also have better problem-solving abilities in the face of conflict, demonstrating just how important this skill is.
How Empathy Develops
Given that empathy is so important for human functioning, you might assume that this trait develops naturally, but the development of empathy is somewhat complex. There is a rather large body of evidence that suggests that the ability to be empathetic develops in early childhood, based upon biological factors and the quality of parenting a person receives.
A study with young twins found that genetics had only a moderate influence on the display of empathy in early childhood. This means that while genetics can explain some of the differences in the capacity for empathy during childhood, there are other factors that play a role. Additional research has found that children become more empathetic when parents are warm and supportive in their interactions with the children. Furthermore, having strong and healthy attachments with parents is linked to higher empathy.
Further research shows that the majority of toddlers as young as 24 months of age show signs of empathy toward distressed infants, suggesting some natural tendency for empathy. In addition, toddlers aged 24 months are more likely to display empathy when compared to those aged 18 months, demonstrating not only that empathy develops early in life but also showing that these skills become stronger as children grow older.
In summary, while there seems to be some natural tendency for humans to show empathy, especially since children have the ability to empathize early in life, there is also evidence that some people may have a stronger ability to empathize, based upon genetics. Despite this fact, children require nurturing in order for empathy to develop fully, and having access to supportive, warm caregivers helps children to develop these skills.
Helping Children to Develop Empathy
Genetics can lay the foundation for the development of empathy, but children also need parental guidance to become empathetic and develop the skills required for satisfying cooperative relationships. Children who have a high genetic propensity for empathy may never develop empathy skills without proper caregiving, whereas those with a lower tendency to be empathetic can still develop strong skills with supportive parenting.
Consider the following tips for fostering empathy in your own children:
- Allow children to express their own emotions, including negative emotions like sadness and frustration.
- Help children to effectively deal with their emotions, such as by taking a deep breath or counting to five when angry.
- Model empathy, by showing care and kindness for other people.
- When children are in conflict with friends, ask them to consider how their friends might feel.
- Encourage children to identify what they are feeling, and why they feel that way.
- Assist children with having empathy for those who are different from them, such as by encouraging them to be kind to a classmate who is teased, or to consider that some people may not be as fortunate as them.
Since empathy is critical for the development of social skills and healthy relationships, humans do seem to have some natural capacity for showing care and concern for others. However, we do require warmth, nurturing, and guidance during early childhood in order to fully develop the ability to feel for others and consider their feelings and perspectives. If you feel you are lacking in empathy, an individual therapy treatment may help you learn simple tools to better develop empathy.