Meet Ellie. Her superpower is empathy.
Empathy – Noun
The definition of empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person.
When a child has experienced an adverse childhood experience (ACE), it is a very personal, emotional and often life-impacting situation that may continue to affect them throughout their growth and development years, even into adulthood. While there are different types of ACE, and no two children will experience any one ACE the same way, developing empathy may be more difficult, or come easier, for a child who has been through a specific life adversity.
Why is empathy important for children?
Frankly, life is hard. Everyone faces some type of adversity in a given season of life. When a person faces adversity in their early childhood years, their brains were not fully developed to fully process the experience. As children grow, they learn to make sense of the world based on the environment in which they live.
Everyone goes through times where empathy and grace are needed. But how do children learn to give empathy if they never saw empathy in action? Sometimes people cannot give what they never had. If trauma persists generation to generation, the challenge persists.
God’s design for parents is to help raise children in the way they should go through life. Parents teach children and help prepare them to become adults. An ACE may result in negative behavior in children because of an inability to communicate feelings or process the experience. This is why communication and learning your child’s uniqueness is so important to identify when something may be wrong.
The good news is empathy can be taught and learned. Parents, while you will want to empathize with your child, don't make assumptions about your child's experience. Perhaps you had a similar challenge, but to validate the child’s feelings, it is important to acknowledge you don’t know exactly how they feel, but you care enough to listen and support them through their road of processing the experience.
We asked some of our internal experts, who work with vulnerable children, their thoughts on developing empathy as young children up to teenagers and young adults.
Bekah – Director, Foster Youth Aging Out Program, Lubbock, Texas
The impacts of trauma in early childhood can impact a teen’s or young adult’s ability to have empathy. Complex developmental trauma can have negative effects on the brain of a young child. It literally changes their brain and brain chemistry. If that child does not experience healing care before becoming a teenager, they often face an uphill battle to repair that trauma.
The teen and young adult years are often when more significant mental health issues begin to arise. When left untreated and sometimes undiagnosed, there may be barriers to developing empathy and other relational skills. But, when youth can repair and reconcile those early childhood experiences, they can be some of the most empathetic individuals. The good news is that children are malleable and with love, safety and encouragement, empathy can be learned.
In my experience, teens and young adults who were in foster care are more empathetic because of their histories. They are willing to do anything to help their friends and families, sometimes without thought of their own needs or well-being. Many youth have told me they would like to help other foster youth when they are older, either as careers or as mentors. They want to give back and help other young people because they truly understand the struggles of being a teen in foster care and of aging out.
Cassandra – Director, Buckner Family Hope Center at Reed Road in Houston, Texas
Children often model behaviors of those closest to them. Regardless of the challenges the child may or may not have experienced, empathy is learned from parents, close family members, teachers, etc. If a child is residing in a household where the family has a food shortage, there is a possibility the child may have a greater understating of what sharing with others looks like based on what their loved ones teach them.
While I have experienced children who may have experienced challenges lack empathy, I have noticed that patience when teaching the child what empathy looks like is necessary and is possible for that child to learn.
Dior – Director of Administration and Operations, Houston, Texas
Empathy is something we all learn through watching others model the behavior. We have all heard the phrase, we are a product of our environment. If the adults around children are not showing empathy to each other or to the kids, the children will grow up with very little empathy themselves.
Many children from hard places grow up with a survival mentality, especially to look out for themselves. It is not inherently embraced when someone has little in terms of resources. They may feel they have little to give or to offer others. If adults make a habit of teaching and modeling empathy from the beginning, then children will grow up knowing what it is to care for others. It is not always about what you can offer someone else that is tangible, rather being sympathetic to their situation by offering a shoulder to cry on, prayer, or a hug can be a tremendous blessing to someone else.
Tips to nurture a child’s learning and understanding of empathy:
- Model the way. Children are always watching adults and other children to learn and grow. Choose a family volunteer service opportunity to help others in need. Use this as a teaching moment so your child learns about helping those who need a hand up during a difficult time. You can also explain what "paying it forward" means as no one is ever immune to adversity in life.
- Read stories. There are several stories in the Bible about individuals overcoming adversity: Hannah, Job, David. There are also age-appropriate children’s books to learn, through storytelling, about empathy.
- Watch a movie as a family. Most superhero movies show a character who overcome a tough life challenge and then went on to help others in need. After the movie, ask your child questions about their comprehension of the story and what they learned from the superhero.
- Teach children to give and receive care. Provide early opportunities for children to do simple, kind or benevolent things for others, including family members. In turn, make sure the child is the recipient of acts of kindness. Giving and receiving care are a hallmark to building empathy and healthy relationships in children.