The power of empathy

17. Dec 2020 | Articles

Post author: Kadri Sakala

Kadri Sakala

The article appeared in a magazine EMA, winter 2019

The greatest gift we can give children is to teach them to create and maintain good relationships. The key lies in empathy. In a world where face-to-face communication is becoming less and less common, we need to practise this skill with special care.

Every part of our brain and the whole body is affected by communication and the quality of relationships. If you look around and read what research says, then significant changes are taking place in our society in this area. Communication is increasingly conducted using devices and we spend less and less time in direct physical contact with each other. But this is not the only change. There are far fewer relationships in the life of a modern person than before. What is the long-term consequence of this development and how does it change us as humans? Looking at different studies, we can already guess this.

Relationships protect us.

Trauma specialists have been saying for years that the greater number of healthy relationships we have around us, the more they protect us from bad things and the more and better our brains develop and function. When we spend more time with our families, talk about important things, hug and caress our loved ones, then we are weaving a shield around ourselves and our loved ones to protect us from adversity. However, we have never lived in such a poor environment in terms of relationships as we do today.

In the old days, we lived in communities where family, relatives and neighbours surrounded us and where there was an average of four adults per child. It is now common for children to grow up with one parent, for relatives to be far away or not to have close contact with them and there is not much contact with neighbours either, i.e. children grow up alone because there is no community. However, for children’s brains to develop well and learn empathy, they need an environment rich in relationships.

Research shows that children who are empathetic do better in school, cope better in social situations and are more successful at work in the future. They are also both physically and mentally healthier as adults and have loving relationships.

Empathy means that I know and understand your feelings and thoughts. I can put myself in your situation. I am caring and sensitive to your feelings and needs. And I can stay caring even when I’m hurt or insecure. We are not born empathetic; empathy must be learned and parents are responsible for this learning process. A child can learn empathy only through examples from parents and society.

Smart feelings.

Emotions began to be studied in the 1990s because they were previously considered unintelligent. But feelings are very intelligent. They guide and teach us. Good contact with your feelings allows you to take responsibility for your needs. We need to be aware of our needs because we are just as happy or unhappy in life as our needs are satisfied or unmet.

Understanding your feelings depends on emotional intelligence. It determines how we can recognize the expression of another person’s emotions, how good is our vocabulary of feelings, how we can manage our emotions and so on. The development of emotional intelligence is very much related to the environment in which a child grows up. The first six years of a child’s life are crucial because then the brain develops very quickly.

The human brain has billions of nerve cells or neurons. When we are born, we already have 95% of the neurons. 90% of a child’s brain has developed by the age of three. By the time we are five, 85% of synaptic connections are already in place (synaptic connections control the way our brains work). The brain develops from the bottom up and from the inside out. The lower parts of the brain, the reptilian brain, are involved in regulating the heartbeat, breathing, sleeping, blood circulation and so on. The reptilian brain has a limbic system, or mammalian brain, that regulates our feelings. And the highest part is the cerebral cortex, where thinking, organising information, reflecting, etc. takes place.

For a child’s brain to develop correctly, it needs secure attachment relationships and a stable environment. In a safe attachment relationship, we learn autonomy, dependence, and interdependence. Supposing this process has been successful, as adults, we have a basic trust in other people. In that case, we can read relationship cues correctly and even if our loved one cannot be physically present, we can feel that he or she is still emotionally present to us.

Chaotic childhood.

Most people do not know that the lower parts of the brain (reptilian brain and limbic system) send connections to the higher parts of the brain and affect the way they function. Children’s brains develop enormously at an early age, which makes them extremely sensitive to experience. When a child has too much stress in life and grows up in a chaotic environment, then the lower parts of their brain cannot become well regulated, they don’t function as well, making it harder for them to focus, learn and think clearly in the future.

Children whose parent was either addicted, depressed, or otherwise mentally ill, whose parent was working a lot, abandoned them, or who had minimal contact with them and who was emotionally or physically violent, had to learn early on that they could only rely on themselves. When children do not have enough healthy relationships around in this situation to heal the trauma, it is difficult for them to trust other people in adulthood. They may be more nervous, easily irritable and they might lack stability and emotional intimacy in their relationship, be at greater risk of being violent, more likely to be ill, have a weaker immune system and, of course, have mental health problems such as depression, anxiety and so on. They may develop a fear of abandonment and they need a lot of autonomy, which is actually pseudo-independence, acting as if they are very independent whereas, in reality, they are incredibly vulnerable to other people’s behaviour.

Because these people have higher-than-normal levels of excitability in their autonomic nervous system due to the constant stress experienced in childhood, their reactions may often be amplified. In such cases, we see adults becoming very agitated because of small things, even though it is disproportionate to this event. If they do not feel safe with their partner due to a misunderstanding or conflict, they may start shouting, disappear for a few days, or keep an emotional distance as if the feelings have disappeared, instead of coming to talk and reconnect.

As a child, they haven’t experienced a natural cycle of a secure affection relationship, where an interruption in a relationship, or conflict, misunderstanding, a situation where someone’s need was not met, is followed by the improvement or healing of the relationship. Healing is the most important link in this cycle because, once the contact is restored, we can feel safe again.

What has changed?

The results of several studies should make us think seriously. In the US, the number of teenage depressions and suicides has risen dramatically since 2011 and research shows that it has a direct link to smartphones. The more time that is spent behind screens, the unhappier people are and the more likely they are to have symptoms of depression. Teenagers who spend three hours or more a day behind the screen have a 35% higher risk of suicide.

Between 2000 and 2015, the number of teenagers in the United States who met with friends on a daily basis decreased by 40%. This trend does not characterise only teenagers; adults are also increasingly exchanging messages to communicate rather than having real conversations. And when we do get together, we don’t entirely focus on each other, but we interrupt the conversation and deal with our phone when we receive a message or a call. If it happens once, we can deal with it. However, if this happens often, it becomes a mini-trauma, because we are constantly receiving the message of, “I am not important.”

In the US, a meta-survey was conducted looking at MMPI data (a test that assesses different aspects of personality and which has been used for decades). The results showed that in 2007, we had five times as many people in society who met the characteristics of a psychopath as there had been before. These results should make us all vigilant. According to the hypothesis of the authors of the study, we have culturally moved away from internal values ​​such as community, a purpose of life and belonging and moved more towards external goals, which are materialism and status.

We have created an environment where we no longer use parts of the brain that promote empathy, being part of a community, belonging, but isolation. At the same time, research into psychopaths has shown that many of them have grown up in emotional or physical isolation.

Repetition of goodness.

Fortunately, as quicky as children pick up negative things, they also pick up positive things. Above all, a child needs stability and an environment where they are constantly surrounded by safe adults. The problem is not in the problematic situations that may arise, but how the adults around the child react to the difficulties. For a child to acquire something, they need to experience activities with the same pattern and, as parents, we can offer them repetitive patterns. These repetitive stimuli support the development of the lower parts of the brain.

A child needs to see their parents and loved ones hugging and talking to each other kindly, listening to each other, understanding, comforting, apologising, reconciling. They also need to experience frequent hugging and caressing, repetition of words, parental attention and presence themselves. This is also how a child learns to hold a fork and a knife, throw a ball, play an instrument and so on.

Values ​​are like muscles; if you train them every day, your muscles are strong. Otherwise, they atrophy. All people want and need intimacy, listening and understanding, but few know to ask themselves: to what extent I am willing and able to offer them to my loved ones? It is the parent’s work with themselves that ultimately helps the child the most.

It’s easy to be good when things are going well. However, I believe that a person’s true face comes out when they are confronted with the unknown and uncertainty. How they behave under stress or when they are hurt. These are the moments that determine a person’s character.

You always find excuses and reasons why you couldn’t be respectful, caring and loving or empathetic to someone. At the same time, as a therapist, I know that if caring, compassion and respect are really on a person’s list of values, they will find an opportunity to demonstrate those values with their behaviour.

We still have many adults who do not realise how important it is to learn the skills of a healthy relationship, how important it is to learn to love, how important it is to work with your family relationships and create an environment rich with relationships. Love, in my opinion, is a verb that says, “I care.” Love must be continuously practised. Being mentally lazy, we create a fertile ground for emotional and physical violence.

How do you feel?

It is very important to teach children to understand feelings, to give them a vocabulary of feelings. We need to talk to children about our feelings, needs, fears, joys, dreams and about our relationships. It increases their emotional intelligence. Our job as parents is to help our child, to support and listen, not rush to resolve all their situations.

In doing so, we should pay close attention to how we raise boys and girls. I have often heard stories of a man telling a woman who is trying to listen to or comfort her son that, “Why do you let the boy complain? He must grow up to be a man, not a wimp!” I hear that these fathers are anxious about their sons and they sincerely want them to do well in life so that the sons could do well in this world. But the way they express themselves is destructive. They belittle the child’s feelings and, because of their own incompetence, leave him emotionally alone; this can be the seed for many later problems.

I hear you.

It is also necessary to be careful not to let the screens come between our relationships. We need to limit the use of our screens. A parent may be physically at home, but if they are not ‘present’ in their mind, they spend most of their time working or doing sports, not playing or communicating with their child and partner, not eating together so that the phone is silent; then we can talk about neglected family members. We need attention, touch, tenderness, both physical and emotional intimacy. We need to learn that when someone comes to speak to us, we put down the phone or switch off the TV/radio/computer and listen to them. When we do all these little things to increase and nurture relationships with family and friends, then we develop empathy, have better relationships and we are also physically and mentally healthier.

As a society, we are faced with questions, such as, “What can we do in this situation?”, “What can be done to create an environment rich with relationships for children?”, “What kind of laws would be needed for this?”, “What kind of resources in kindergartens and schools” and “How to support parents who have young children or single parents?” We also need to support the mindset that a child has a right to both a mother and a father, i.e. the children of separated parents must not be kept away from the father unless the father is dangerous to the child.

We are responsible for the health of children, but we cannot be responsible for a child unless we have also taken responsibility for our own health. The good news is that we have the ability to make changes. We just have to decide that.

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