Help develop your kids’ emotional maturity
Stress for Success
September 17, 2013
Empathy means seeing through another’s eyes to understand their point of view, a skill licensed counselors are trained to develop and a vital trait for parents, as well.
Empathy is valuable for everyone. For example, as an older patient, wouldn’t you want your younger physician to understand the physical challenges from aging? A study had young, healthy medical students simulate the difficulties of old age by wearing, for example, transparent tape-covered goggles to mimic cataracts. After the experiment, the students showed greater empathy towards the elderly, preparing them to be better physicians (Varkey et al 2006).
Another powerful example was presented by a theater group of schizophrenics helping others understand what they experience. They placed a non-schizophrenic volunteer in a chair. Then, several schizophrenics swooped in and out whispering disturbing thoughts into the volunteer’s ears. You could hear a pin drop in the room. The volunteer turned white. Do you think greater empathy for the schizophrenics was achieved?
As parents you must role-model this trait for your kids if you want them to develop it. Benefits to them include managing their own emotions better thereby becoming more emotionally mature and lower stress than kids who don’t have much empathy.
To teach empathy here are five ideas from anthropologist, Gwen Dewar, Ph. D., (http://www.parentingscience.com/parenting-blog.html).
1. Use stories from books and TV programs to encourage your kids to look through the characters’ eyes and guess what they think, want and feel. What is the character communicating verbally and nonverbally to lead them to guess as they do? This helps them understand how others’ minds work and demonstrates that not everyone interprets situations the same way.
2. Play the game, “make a face.” Tell your children to make a sad face and they can actually experience the sad emotion. Researchers tracked brain and physical activity during this game and found kids’ brains, heart rate, skin conductance, and body temperature change (Decety and Jackson, 2004.)
To build greater empathy with someone, imitate their facial expressions. People who are naturally empathic automatically do this when they listen to someone who’s distraught. This mirroring builds rapport so the person feels more understood therefore trusting of you.
3. Help your children develop a strong sense of morality that depends upon internal self-control versus rewards or punishments.
Studies have shown that children become less likely to be empathic when they are given material rewards for doing so. It makes sense, doesn’t it?
Kids are more likely to develop an internal sense of right and wrong when administered discipline is rationally explained including the moral consequences of their misbehavior versus random rules and harsh punishment. To help them develop moral principles, show them how their wrong-doing affects other people (Hoffman and Saltzein, 1967).
4. Teach your older kids about moral detachment. Frightening research demonstrated that average, well-adjusted people can be persuaded to harm others, even torture them, as long as they are given the right justification. Yale University’s Stanley Milgram’s experiments told psychologically “normal” research subjects that they were participating in an experiment that required them to administer painful electric shocks to another person (Milgram, 1963). The experiment was fake (no real electric shocks or victim). The subjects, however, administered what they thought were real shocks to screaming victims. Almost 65% of participants continued to press the button even after the victim appeared to be unconscious! Why? Because they were told to by a credible authority figure. Kids can also experience moral detachment.
My mother explained to us to not assume we’d keep our grip on morality when we insisted that had we been Europeans during WW II we would definitely have protected Jewish people in our homes. She wisely said that we couldn’t know that unless we actually experienced the atrocities.
5. Give the gift of security and love to your kids through caring interactions and physical affection to boost their oxytocin levels. Oxytocin, a hormone, helps mitigate some of the damage of the stress hormones.
Higher levels of oxytocin may also help people better understand others’ nonverbal behavior. Researchers had 30 young adult males inhale oxytocin and then examine photographs of other people’s eyes. Compared to men given a placebo, the oxytocin men more accurately interpreted the photographed people’s emotions (Domes et al 2006).
Kids can better interpret others’ emotional signals if they regularly experience positive interactions at home like hugs, smiles and positive feedback (Uvnäs-Moberg 2003).