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Learning and Teaching Empathy.

I grew up in a small town in Wisconsin. I had good friends and we were often playful and silly. In some ways it was a carefree life but less so as I got older. Both my mother and my father lost their mothers when they were very young, and their growing up years were difficult. Both of them developed emotional problems, that carried into their adult lives. Their anger, fear, and sadness were often part of family life. My sister and I felt their emotions and it could be scary. My mother and father would argue a lot, yelling at each other. My mother often was depressed and went to bed for days at a time. My sister and I took care of ourselves and each other. We also had happy times together as a family. So, it was complicated, as families often are. Mother would sometimes say I was an uncaring person,--that I did not have empathy for her. I learned over time than I was caring, even though I could not help with her emotional problems. Children shouldn't have to do that.

Empathy is the ability to feel what another person feels. It can help us to understand their situation and to care for them. If someone is hurt or sad or frightened, empathy can give us deeper awareness of their troubles.

Ordinarily, this is very useful. If we can feel for their difficulties, we can help and comfort them. We can give them a hug or try to cheer them up when they are sad. We can help them when they are hurt or find an adult who can take care of them. We can share with others in need. We can stand up to bullies and comfort their victims when they are being picked on. There are many ways to show kindness and generosity, and to care for others. But when we get overinvolved in other's strong feelings, this can hurt us. We start to worry so much about the other person that we don't take care of our own needs. My mother was good at helping others outside the family but less so at home. She was insightful about others' problems and I learned a lot of psychology "at her knee". But I did not always personally benefit from it. Later in life we came to get along and to even enjoy each other.

My family experiences created a curiosity that led me to become a child psychologist. I studied how children develop healthy empathy, as well as both too much empathy or too little. This became a lifetime passion. Sometimes early adversity has positive outcomes. For me it opened up a whole new world of experiences. I went to universities in the Midwest to get the formal training to study these interests. Of course, I didn't realize that's what I was doing then. As a young adult, I just was interested in leaving home and starting my own life.

After college I took a job at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, MD. I worked with Marian Radke-Yarrow, a psychologist interested in ways children could be taught to care for others in need. We studied how nursery school children were influenced both by (1) how an adult teacher treated them (either warm and kind or aloof and uncaring), and (2) how the teacher treated others in need (either with limited empathy or more expanded empathic concern for others). The most effective condition for learning empathy was when the teacher was both kind to children and taught them many different ways to care for others. This is called generalized altruism, i.e. when we are able to reach out into the world more broadly to care for others. Many decades have passed since then and others have found similar results. Also, we now know that it is easier for some children to show empathy than others. But practice helps.

I continued to study the development of empathy in babies and toddlers. We followed them for several years, observing them at home and in the laboratory. Earlier theories said children do not show caring and concern until they are school age. However, we found that some forms are present in the first years of life, even in some three-month-old babies. Like all human emotions and behaviors, people vary in how much empathy they show. We learned some of this is determined by our genes. In one study we compared identical twins (who come from one egg and share all their genes) with fraternal twins (who come from separate eggs and share half their genes). Identical twins were more similar in empathy toward others than fraternal twins. But how we are raised also makes a difference in children's desire to care for others. Both nature and nurture matter.

So how can empathy be developed?

If you are lucky, you have parents are caring, both to you and to others around them. This is not always true for many children and youth as parents have their own struggles. If there is trouble at home, it can be helpful to seek out other caring relatives and friends (and even our pets!). That's what I did. There are many kind people in our lives if we look for them. They are examples of concern and compassion that we can use to guide us. The world is filled with conflict. Many people want to dominate, hurt, and control others. This too starts in childhood. When you see bullying, you can look for ways to help. This is another form of empathy. Empathy can lead to the bravery and courage required to stand up for others less fortunate and to resist oppression and cruelty.

Since our early studies, other scientists have tried similar and new ways to increase empathy and caring actions in children, as well as adults. One of the promising new approaches involves meditation and other ways of self-reflection for developing a sense of calm. When we are emotionally stirred up it is hard to settle down, much less care about another's emotional needs. When we are emotionally comfortable with ourselves, we can more easily reach out to others. Being kind to yourself is the best place to start. One form of meditation is called loving-kindness meditation. It starts with sending thoughts of kindness and caring to yourself and later extending it to others in your life and beyond. Scientists at the Center for Healthy Minds in Madison, WI found that loving-kindness meditation increased caring actions in preschool children. This study, like our earlier one, also included a warm adult who taught a variety of ways to care for others. Similar practices also work with older children and adults.

There are many ways to be a caring person. So, take good care of yourself and others. In some ways it sounds simple, but it is not always easy to 'grow' empathy. Some things in life can't be changed, but other things can. It's important to try. It depends on all of us to try to create a more just and peaceful world. Empathy is the "glue' that can bind us together in this effort.

An honorary fellow at the Center for Healthy Minds, University of Wisconsin, Dr. Zahn-Waxler has conducted seminal studies on the origins and development of empathy and caring behaviors beginning in the first years of life. She has written about the intergenerational transmission of depression from mother to daughter from a personal perspective and has worked to de-stigmatize mental illness.

Caption: Carolyn at ten.
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Author:Zahn-Waxler, Carolyn
Geographic Code:1U3WI
Date:Apr 1, 2019
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