Like most of my articles, this one is inspired by struggles I have with my 6-year-old son. Teaching him to show respect and empathy are even more challenging because my son was diagnosed with sensory processing disorder, which means he doesn’t always read or process other people’s reactions or feelings correctly.
For example, it doesn’t matter how many times the dog growls at him for trying to pet her and hug her, he doesn’t take the growl as a sign to stop and actually makes it part of his game.
He laughs even though it would seem very obvious to most observers that people are angry with him or that what he’s done has hurt them. Their blatant displeasure doesn’t make him stop laughing nor does he stop whatever he was doing to make them angry.
He doesn’t seem to grasp that what he’s doing hurts people.
The ability to empathize, or recognize and react positively to someone’s pain, is closely linked to a child’s definition of right and wrong, or morality. I worried that my son was really at the end of his learning on this and that I couldn’t do anything about it.
I also wondered how common this kind of attitude is in children around his age and if I was really expecting him to do something that, developmentally, he just wasn’t capable of doing yet.
Sounded like a perfect article topic to me. Perhaps there’s another bewildered mother out there who is wondering about the same thing.
What is empathy?
To empathize with someone means to understand another person’s feelings or how you would feel if placed in the same situation. In other words, it’s the ability to walk in someone else’s shoes.
For a child to be able to empathize with someone and their situation, they must be aware that others think of themselves similarly to and differently from the way he or she does, and that others have emotions relating to thoughts and images. (1)
Children that have learned empathy “tend to do better in school, in social situations, and in their adult careers. Children and teenagers who have the greatest amount of skill at empathy are viewed as leaders by their peers.” (1)