When children are small, they only have an awareness of themselves. From their perspective, the world revolves around 'me'. As young people mature, an awareness of others usually develops. This generally occurs earlier with students who are cognitively advanced because acquisition of this skill is developmental.
As individuals develop the cognitive ability to 'walk in another's moccasins' (as Native Americans refer to it), they develop an understanding of how another person feels. This awareness influences behaviour towards others. The awareness of another's perspective and their feelings form the basis of the ability to empathise. Studies have shown that individuals who have not developed an awareness of others' needs tend not to experience empathy. They remain emotionally detached and fail to appreciate that their behaviour can trigger a positive or negative emotional response from others.
Within families, social groups and work situations, there are sometimes people who fail to understand the impact of their behaviour upon others. Bullying behaviour is an example of this. Students often report that they experience significantly less bullying behaviour than has occurred in other situations, but any bullying is too much and must be stopped.
Highly intelligent students might be very emotionally sensitive and may tend towards emotional overload because they empathise too much. These could be the students who listen to everyone else's troubles, who feel the pain that others experience and are always trying to help their friends and family. They tend to have perception and awareness beyond their years. Their ability to empathise creates a magnetic attraction for those who need support. These individuals may be very caring but sometimes – especially while still adolescents – they lack the life experience and skills required to provide the level of support that is needed.
A lack of empathy can destroy relationships. Empathy, without appropriate perspective, experience and support skills, can be overwhelming and emotionally exhausting. Students, whose intent is to be helpful, can easily stray outside their skill set, giving undertakings, and providing advice which is not really appropriate. It is important for adults to help, support and guide young people to find a positive balance, because empathy is an important part of healthy, warm, nurturing and reciprocal relationships.
Empathy should occur within what each person feels is a safe and secure context, with a clear understanding of what students can reasonably cope with while identifying which matters need to be referred to adults – particularly those who have specialist skills and appropriate experience.
© Michele Juratowitch