Encouraging Empathy When It’s Hard

Holiday shows play on our sense of connection to beloved characters. Kids who have been left out or bullied know how Rudolph feels. Those who are adopted and wonder about their birth families can relate to Buddy the Elf. Even grumpy kids have an ally in the Grinch.

For children (and adults), it’s generally pretty easy to understand and care about the experiences of similar people. We grasp what they are going through because we share their reality. We are generally willing to help out because we see ourselves in them. We feel what researchers call an ‘automatic empathy’ with kindred spirits.

But kids need more than innate connections. They also need to learn how to practice empathy when it’s hard to connect. Researchers call this ‘effortful empathy’. It occurs when children make an effort to understand and appreciate another’s experiences, despite sociocultural differences, personal disagreements, or uncomfortable feelings.

A group of Stanford University psychologists found that just believing that we can learn empathy makes a huge difference in our ability to practice empathy. If children think that empathy depends on automatically connecting with someone, they don’t imagine that they can change their negative feelings about some people. But if they know empathy may take effort, they are more likely to try to overcome the challenges of difference and discomfort.

Furthermore, reminding children that empathy can be learned encourages them to be persistent in their quest to understand others. It makes it more likely that they will try again if their first efforts fail. And they will be more creative in looking for ways to make connections because such efforts help them achieve their goal.

Studies also show that the more challenging the disagreements among people, the harder people who believe in learned empathy try to see others’ perspectives. This means that encouraging children to view empathy as a practice (not an innate trait) may lead to a reduction in social discord. Kids who want to learn from others are more appreciative of diversity and willing to accept that all people deserve respect and compassion.

Another area where a belief in learned empathy is useful is when children find themselves in situations that make them emotionally uncomfortable. Their instinct might be to avoid dealing with a classmate who has been diagnosed with cancer, an elderly relative with dementia, or a family who are homeless. But if kids are primed to seek ways to be empathetic, they are more likely to try to connect, even when it feels emotionally vulnerable. Specifically, they will spend more time listening to another’s story and seeking points of intersection. They are also more likely to volunteer help, even if they continue to find a situation upsetting.



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