One of the hallmarks of mental wellness is the ability to feel empathy. Empathy is the emotional capability to understand where another person may be coming from. It is the ability to see and feel things through another person’s eyes. Lack of this ability plays a large role in not only hurtful but also criminal acts that harm others. Lack of empathy is a key factor in sociopathic behavior.
We do not yet have a genetic code or marker for the presence of empathy or varying degrees of empathy in the personality. We do experience in ourselves and others how this golden quality is helpful in getting along with others and being a positive participant in relationships. We might even say that empathy in the helping professions is an important part in assisting others to learn and to heal and to find joy in life.
In the home, empathy is most essential for children to learn to accept themselves while striving for growth and improvement. Children learn not just from what they hear, but from observing behaviors and consequences that are modeled by adults. A parent who takes the time to understand a child’s behavior builds the child’s ability to also understand the parent and others.
In my work with children with severe emotional disabilities, it became clear to me that the child who hurts other children and animals, needs strong modeling from healthy adults. I remember one little boy who was in residential care, partly for being a danger to others in his home and at school. The first day in my office he asked if he could play with some of the stuffed animals on my shelf. When I gave him a bear, he proceeded to hit it and throw it against the wall. My job began with “rescuing” this bear. His growth began with practicing how to show respect for things. It was a beginning in learning to feel and sense how plants need water, and animals need care, and people need the same love.
After a while, this 7-year-old client came in one day and said, “Miss Janette, if you give me that bear, I won’t put in the hospital.”
Nurturing empathy in our children, in ourselves, and even other adults is a very concrete way to make the world safer and life sweeter.