Empathy

by James Fawcett October 24, 2014 A

Yesterday I went to the park with Chloe, a 13-year-old girl that I mentor.

We got a juice from the café and took a walk around the lake before settling on a bench to discuss the week’s events. Directly in front of us, a little boy was playing by the edge of the lake with his mum when a particularly enthusiastic kick resulted in his trainer flying off in to the lake where it bobbed happily about 2 metres from the shore.

Chloe and I looked from the shocked little boy to his exasperated mother and then to each other, both clearly wondering how this situation was going to unfold. Chloe suddenly jumped to her feet and said

“shall I get it?”

Aware that I was the responsible adult in this situation with someone elses child but also wanting to encourage her generous spirit, I reluctantly countered “no, no I’ll do it”. As I engaged the now very embarrassed mum in a polite exchange about how she couldn’t possibly let me get the shoe, with me wondering whether I really wanted to, Chloe had whipped of her own shoes and waded knee high in to the lake, tights and all, and was waving the trainer victoriously, slightly surprised and exhilarated by her own initiative and success.

An article in The Wall Street Journal about teens and empathy talks about the different stages of its development, and some of the contributing and resulting factors involved. The article states that “affective empathy”, the ability to recognise and respond to another person’s emotions, develops in us from babies reading the emotions of our parents. “Affective empathy” can however also be encouraged later on by prompting young people to reflect on how others may feel. Research also shows that a persons level of “affective empathy” has a direct impact on their development of “cognitive empathy”, the ability to see things from others’ perspectives which starts significantly increasing in young women around age 13 (boys show a dip at this age and start to develop later around age 15). “Cognitive empathy” is key for forming healthy relationships with family and friends but also in engaging positively with wider society.

I don’t know exactly what went through Chloe’s mind as she considered the situation in the park or what prompted her to take the action that she did.

Did she feel the sadness of the little boy or the frustration of the mother, or maybe my reluctance to go in? But it was wonderful...

(and slightly humbling!) to see how instinctively she sought to help, how much gratitude and relief this produced in the mum and her little boy and how much joy Chloe gained from this. According to the research, this bodes well for Chloe’s continued empathy development. I am reminded of how significant empathy is in order for young people to engage successfully with the world around them, for their own benefit as well as that of others and how the two are inextricably intertwined. And whilst this is clearly a complex task, I am excited that I, as a youth worker, have the ability to effect it in some small way.

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