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Understanding Empathy

By January 13, 2020NESCA Notes 2019

By:  Stephanie Monaghan-Blout, Psy.D.
Pediatric Neuropsychologist

Our children are growing up in a social environment that is too often flavored by fear; fear of inexplicable violence, fear of people who look different than us, whose politics are contrary to what we hold dear, people who seem to despise us as much as we discount them. At the same time, we are realizing that in order to help our children learn, we must pay attention to their emotional and social states as well as their intellectual development.

In the context of these paradoxes, the concept of empathy has become a topic of considerable interest. The fact of the matter is that empathy may be at play in the divisiveness of our communities as well as in the efforts to include all children in our schools. Empathy is critical in forming close and supportive relationships, but at the same time, it is also responsible for a built-in bias toward people with whom one feels a connection. Further, being empathetic towards others does not ensure that one will follow that feeling of concern with acts of kindness. Finally, too much empathy for those in pain is very painful and can cause the empathizer to pull back or avoid the situation or person  in order to protect themselves. The research of the past 15 years has deepened our understanding of empathy and has helped to explain some of these contradictions. In an article in the Scientific American (December 13, 2017), Science Writer Lydia Denworth summarized the general consensus of the scientific community to describe three different but interactive aspects of empathy:

  • Emotional empathy refers to the experience of sharing one’s feelings and matching that person’s behavioral states; for example, feeling afraid when watching a movie in which someone is being attacked by a lion. This form of empathy is a biological response that is seen in a variety of animals as well as children as young as one year old.
  • Cognitive empathy is the capacity to think about and understand other people’s feelings. It is often referred to as perspective taking or theory of mind. While aspects of this ability can be seen in very young children, it is not fully developed until adulthood.
  • Empathetic concern, or compassion is the feeling of concern that motivates one to help in some way. This capacity can also be seen in young children.

True empathy requires the engagement of all three capacities. Consider, for instance, the experience of many people on the Autism Spectrum. They may be fully capable of feeling emotional empathy; in fact, they are often overwhelmed by the sharing of pain. However, they struggle with the cognitive task of  perspective taking, or appreciating that the other person may not see things in the same way that they do. On the other hand, people with antisocial tendencies may be very good at understanding how someone feels, but do not have any interest in helping them. Finally, it is extremely difficult for people who live in a homogeneous cultural area to be able to extend the same kind of care and consideration to others who look and sound different and whose views may run counter to their own.

Gwen DeWar is a biological anthropologist who edits the Parenting Science website. In one of her articles, she describes 10 steps parents can take to encourage the development of empathy in their children. These include tasks such as, providing the support needed to develop strong self-regulation skills, the modeling of empathic behavior, the avoidance of reward or punishment in favor of thinking through the impact of one’s actions on others, the fostering of cognitive empathy through literature and role-playing, and the education of children to avoid the “empathy gap” that occurs when people forget what it is like to be in the grip of pain, discomfort or fear. It is worth reading.

About the Author:

Formerly an adolescent and family therapist, Dr. Stephanie Monaghan-Blout is a senior clinician who joined NESCA at its inception in 2007. Dr. Monaghan-Blout specializes in the assessment of clients with complex learning and emotional issues. She is proficient in the administration of psychological (projective) tests, as well as in neuropsychological testing. Her responsibilities at NESCA also include acting as Clinical Coordinator, overseeing psycho-educational and therapeutic services. She has a particular interest in working with adopted children and their families, as well as those impacted by traumatic experiences. She is a member of the Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative (TLPI) associated with Massachusetts Advocates for Children and the Harvard Law Clinic, and is working with that group on an interdisciplinary guide to trauma sensitive evaluations.

To book an evaluation with Dr. Monaghan-Blout or one of our many other expert neuropsychologists and transition specialists, complete NESCA’s online intake form.

Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Massachusetts, Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.