Empathy is a keystone emotional skill on which many altruistic emotions are built. Compassion, kindness, selflessness, understanding and other human-based social skills platform on the ability to empathize. Empirical research pegs a causal relationship in youth between high levels of empathy, adequate emotion management and positive peer connections. This higher order emotion seems innate in some youngsters, less so in others. Sociology organizes empathy into two arenas -- cognitive and affective. There are certain factors in each of these areas that can influence empathy, for better or worse, in children of all ages.
Cognitive Empathy: Genetic and Medical Factors
Cognitive empathy is your youngster's natural ability to recognize feelings in another person -- to put a name to what she's observing. Certain genetic disorders or mutations can limit her ability to develop cognitive empathy. Kids on the autism spectrum have extreme difficulty discerning emotions in others. A mutation in the oxytocin receptor gene negatively influences empathy development. Traumatic brain injury can also inhibit a teen from developing cognitive empathy; damage to the amygdala -- the region of the brain that controls emotions -- inhibits the potential for cognitive empathy. Prefrontal lobe damage can also derail development of cognitive empathy. If a youngster literally cannot pinpoint what she's viewing on others' faces, she cannot engage in cognitive empathy.
Cognitive Empathy: Environmental Factors
Sociologists have tracked traditional societally imposed gender roles that influence empathy. While girls are subtly swayed by both non-verbal examples and verbal instruction to be the relationship stewards in family and society -- a function that requires empathic nurturing -- boys are often encouraged to become more task oriented, which is a cognitive duty that focuses less on empathy and more on competency. To a great extent, environmentally influenced cognitive empathy is impacted by formal verbal communication -- or lack thereof -- with your children about emotions and feelings for others. Consciously educating youngsters about the significance of pro-social interactions for their own well-being can help them to begin to expand their cognitive empathy. Likewise, if a child is exposed to little instruction in empathy, his development of cognitive empathy may be hit or miss.
Affective Empathy: Genetic Factors
Affective empathy is your child's ability to experience emotions, both his own and others'. As in cognitive empathy, his raw potential to feel emotions can be muted by genetic or trauma-induced factors that derail the neurological process of feeling. For instance, while children with inadequate oxytocin receptors may be able to mimic facial expressions of sadness, fear or surprise, they are unable to truly feel these emotions.
Affective Empathy: Environmental Factors
Environment can be key in influencing empathy in kids. An abusive environment may stunt the development of empathy; in a home where a child's own emotions are debased and attacked, she will have little opportunity to grow to the next level -- understanding others' emotions. In a nurturing home, where a child's emotional needs are consistently met, she will be able to generalize those feelings to others; she'll have the chance to be pro-social and to increasingly interact in a caring manner with others.
- Journal of Cognition and Culture: The Role of Culture in Affective Empathy: Cultural and Bicultural Differences; Tracy G. Cassels, Sherilynn Chan, Winnie Chung and Susan A. J. Birch, p. 3
- Empathy and Its Development; edited by Nancy Eisenberg and Janet Strayer, p. 195
- University of Miami: Genetic and Environmental Predictors of Empathy in Children at Risk for an Autism spectrum Disorder; Nicole Marie McDonald, p. 4
- Photo Credit Jupiterimages/Polka Dot/Getty Images