Fran Walfish, PsyD is back with us. She’s a leading child and family therapist in private practice in Beverly Hills, CA. Over the years, Dr. Walfish has served a diverse patient population, including working-class families as well as Hollywood’s elite, and has achieved recognition as a respected child development specialist and parent educator.
As the author of The Self Aware Parent: Resolving Conflict and Building a Better Bond with Your Child she was a natural choice to interview for the Therapy Soup series of interviews and articles leading up to National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Week (May 6-12, 2012).
Last week Dr. Fran explained what self-aware parenting is; this week she’s going to talk about empathy.
Welcome back. Dr. Fran, you say empathy can be taught. First, let’s understand what empathy is and why it is a valuable trait to have:
Empathy is the capacity to imagine how another person feels. Empathy is learned experientially. In other words, the way we learn to be empathic is by being empathized with. This must come early during infancy and toddlerhood. When we cry, the hope is that there is a consistent warm empathic response from a steady primary attachment figure, usually the mother.
People who are narcissistic, or have narcissistic traits, are missing the computer chip in their organized personalities to empathize with others. The reason empathy is a valued trait is that without it most relationships risk collapse. It is human nature to long to feel seen, validated, understood, and accepted. Without empathy this cannot occur.
How does a parent go about teaching empathy?
As I stated above, empathy is learned by experience from birth on. It begins with a consistent warmly attuned parent, usually the mother, responding to the infant’s cries and needs for hunger, dry clean diapers, soothing and comfort. It continues through the toddler phase when every child must claim themselves as a separate being from Mommy and Daddy. This includes the toddler saying no, having normal temper tantrums, and mastering control over their bodies (self-feeding, sleep and toilet training).
The toddler phase is when many parents lose empathy for their children. When a toddler throws a toy, gets disciplined, and breaks into a raging tantrum, many parents feel frustrated and get mad. There are effective, calm strategies for helping a young child to learn self-control without the parent showing anger.
Alice Miller points out that when a young child begins to express her autonomy, this is when rejection by a narcissistic parent (according to Miller, usually the mother or both parents together) often begins. So what happens to a child when he or she is abused or neglected or his or her primary role models are themselves not empathetic or caring?
In that case the child learns that the world is not a safe place to trust. He or she does not trust people. Therefore, the risk of lying, cheating, stealing, and other delinquent behaviors rises. Trust is the first basic thing necessary for human relationships. Without it everything else falls off track.
Can empathy be learned in other settings, outside the parent-child relationship, such as in a classroom?
Absolutely, yes. A warm nurturing teacher who also balances limits and boundaries is best for most kids. When an important authority figure such as a teacher, counselor, pastor, or rabbi, related to a child with empathy it goes into the child’s psychological organized personality like penicillin. It can affect the child in an enormously positive way.
If a child has been abused or neglected in the early years, can trust be established later in life?
It’s possible if the child allows you in as a trusting figure. The older the child the more challenging to earn their trust. I treated a 5 year-old girl who did not trust anyone – adult nor child. I worked with her for 3 years until I felt she had developed enough trust in me to have a sturdy internal sense of self-identity. I followed-up with her at age 13 years and she was thriving in school, at home, and socially.
Thanks for posting with us, Dr. Fran. We hope you’ll join us again.
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Last reviewed: 12 Apr 2012