Developing empathy is essential to emotional and physical health – Part 1

Authors call for an “empathy epidemic” to address violence, bullying, child abuse, racism and other inequities.

Many parents, educators and scholars agree that the development of social and emotional skills is critically important for children, youth and adults. Part of emotional development is the development of empathy, which is defined as the ability to sense and recognize others’ feelings and emotions – and to care about making it better if it hurts.

In their book Born for Love: Why empathy is essential—and endangered, authors Maia Szalavitz and Bruce Perry, M.D., Ph.D., stress that not only is the development of empathy important for individual health and wellbeing, but that it also “underlies virtually everything that makes society work—like trust, altruism, collaboration, love, charity.” Perry (who is also a renowned child psychiatrist and neuroscientist) and Szalavitz (an investigative journalist, author and senior fellow at George Mason University’s media watchdog STATS.org) share research that indicates an overall decline in expressed empathy in people – and they identify social conditions that contribute to this trend. These conditions and trends include the lack of quality daycare, decreases in time parents and extended family members spend with children, high mobility of our populations, increases in media consumption, increases in poverty and economic inequities, over-emphasis on “things” and materialism, and the lack of community resources to support families.

According to Szalavitz and Perry, empathy and the care and connection it enables are essential to the overall health of people, communities and society as a whole. They call for an “empathy epidemic” in order to increase understanding and support for the development of empathy in children, youth and adults – and to help address issues like bullying, child abuse, racism and other systemic community issues.

The authors stress that humans across time and culture are all “born for love” and that empathy is essential to developing and sustaining healthy relationships across the life span. They also stress that the development of empathy can be helped or hindered. Research shows that relationships are foundational to our existence and we cannot endure and survive without the capacity to form rewarding, nurturing, enduring relationships grounded in love. And we are able to love because we empathize.

Michigan State University Extension provides opportunities for parents, youth workers and other adults to learn more about issues related to social and emotional health, healthy relationships and bullying and ways to create safe, affirming and fair environments with and on behalf of young people. For more information, check out a new initiative called Be SAFE: Safe, Affirming and Fair Environments.

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