Empathy makes people feel what others are feeling. It may also cause them to take action to help others in difficult situations. In other words, empathy helps people to relate humanely to others.
Children as young as 12 months old show empathy, with children between 14 and 18 months displaying helping behaviour towards others (Decety, 2010). But social and cultural factors have an impact on development of empathy, leading to varying degrees of empathy in children. Children on the autism spectrum are identified as not being able to express empathy.
Empathy is important in children and young people, because it helps them to develop into caring individuals who are able to get along with others. Empathy further helps them to understand what other children or young people may be feeling, and it equips then with the ability to interact even with those children and young people who may be most difficult. In short, with empathy, children and young people grow into adults who are not selfish and who express caring towards others.
How to Develop Empathy in Children and Young People
One of the popular ways to develop empathy in children and young people is through pets, especially dogs and cats. This is so because these two animals are able to express emotions which are thought to be based on empathy.
But more importantly, children and young people have demonstrated over the years that they are able to express empathy to animals. Through caring for pets, children and young people get to understand their dogs and cats and gain the opportunity to develop the ability to show empathy.
What are the Advantages for Children and Young People?
They learn to get along with others and how not to be violent. Research has shown that children and young people who are violent towards animals are also violent towards their peers (Springle, 2008). If caring for pets makes children and young people less violent towards animals, then this could make them less violent towards their peers. The risk of bullying is therefore greatly reduced, and positive human relationships are more likely to develop, as children and young people show more caring and understanding towards each other.
Case Study – How Animals Help Foster Empathy and Compassion
In fact, some service organizations are using animals to help at-risk youth to develop empathy and compassion. One such organization, the Georgian Triangle Humane Society (GTHS), has developed a Humane Education program, which is funded by the Ontario Trillium Foundation. Karen Marsh, the humane education coordinator for the GTHS visits not only schools, but the Collingwood Youth Center, Breaking Down Barriers, and other youth organizations in the Simcoe area in Ontario.
The objective is to engage young people to interact with the volunteers in the program as well as with the animals in the care of the GTHS. Interacting with the animals helps at-risk youth in these schools and organizations open up and speak up about a variety of issues. In the process, they form great friendships with the animals as well as with the volunteers.
Karen Casey, a teacher at one of the alternative schools which the GTHS visits, observed the success of this program and the fact that engagement with animals could greatly help these youth. She is quoted as saying: “We talk about how the animals come to be the way they are and what they need in their lives; most often the youth then reflect on their own situation and needs too. . . . They see the animals having an opportunity for a better life and we talk about the youth’s opportunities. The parallels are empowering” (Quoted in Edwards, September 13, 2018).
Animals therefore help foster empathy and compassion in youth who may have problems, and this in turn helps the youth to deal successfully with their own problems. Having animals as pets can be considered an important means of developing empathy in young people and helping them to experience successful youth living.
Decety, J. (2010). The neurodevelopment of empathy in humans. Developmental Neuroscience, 40(3), 189-197.
Edwards, J. (September 13, 2018). Animals help foster empathy among at-risk kids in Collingwood. Retrieved from https://www.simcoe.com/community-story/8881528-animals-help-foster-empathy-among-at-risk-kids-in-collingwood/
Springle, J. E. (2008). Animals, empathy, and violence: Can animals be used to convey principles of prosocial behaviour to children? Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice. https://journals.sagepib.com.doi/abs/10.1177/1541204007305525
Israelin Shockness at www.successfulyouthliving.com and at www.successfulyouthlivingblog empathy among at-risk kids in Collingwood. Retrieved from https://www.simcoe.com/community-story/8881528-animals-help-foster-empathy-among-at-risk-kids-in-collingwood/ Springle, J. E. (2008). Animals, empathy, and violence: Can animals be used to convey principles of prosocial behaviour to children? Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice. https://journals.sagepib.com.doi/abs/10.1177/1541204007305525 Israelin Shockness at www.successfulyouthliving.com and at www.successfulyouthlivingblog