Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person. It’s a key part of social interactions and helps us to build relationships with others. When someone is lacking in empathy, they may have difficulty understanding how others are feeling or why they feel that way. They may also seem insensitive or uncaring towards others.
When it comes to ADHD and empathy, some people with ADHD may often appear to lack any. Particularly kids. Children with ADHD can sometimes be seen as unempathetic because they may have trouble reading social cues, act impulsively, and can be hyperactive and distractible.
Empathy skills can be learned and cultivated, and you can help your child with ADHD show empathy. Keep reading to learn more.
How Do Children Develop Empathy?
Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person. It isn’t as clear-cut as some may think. Empathy is an essential skill for children to develop healthy social relationships and character, but there is no “correct” age when your child can understand and display signs of empathy.
Empathy is not something we are innately born with; it is a skill that is honed from childhood through to adolescence and into adulthood. It is a skill that develops through life experiences and practice.
The first beginnings of empathy are seen in babies as young as eighteen hours old in their ability to reflect their parents’ emotional states. It’s been widely known that babies can respond to the distress and emotions of another baby, all of it due to mirror neurons. Our mirror neurons are brain cells that help us react when an action or behavior is performed and observed.
Many factors, including environment, genetics, and temperament, shape how a child develops empathy. A child’s ability to be empathetic is linked to their relationship and attachment to their parents or caregivers. Children who feel safe and secure are generally more sensitive to others and their emotional needs. Such skills are best learned through positive interactions, rewards, and an overall feeling of safety.
Around preschool age, children are more aware that other people out there experience life differently from them. Such awareness is a rudimentary form of putting themselves in other people’s shoes. They understand that other people have their own thoughts and feelings. However, the child’s response to those other person’s thoughts and feelings may not be what an adult considers empathetic. Earlier in the day, they may hug a sad friend, and then later in the day, watch their younger sister fall and find it absolutely hilarious.
That is the primary form of empathy that children typically show around preschool age. It isn’t until early childhood, roughly ages one through five, that they can fully grasp that there is a difference between themselves and others. A lot of early empathetic responses are modeled by how their parents show empathy. By the ages of six and seven, children have developed a deeper understanding of another’s perspective and can offer appropriate help.
ADHD and Empathy: Do Kids with ADHD Struggle?
Many children with ADHD struggle with empathy.
The classic ADHD symptoms of impulsivity, distractibility, restlessness, and carelessness can contribute to the perception that a child lacks empathy.
ADHD can make it difficult for someone to understand and connect with the emotions of others. This isn’t because they don’t care about other people, but rather because they may have trouble reading social cues and picking up on emotional cues. Moreover, impulsive behavior is common in people with ADHD, and this can sometimes lead to them acting without thinking about how their actions will impact others. And finally, hyperactivity and distractibility can make it hard for someone with ADHD to focus on another person long enough to truly understand their feelings.
This could also possibly be related to the neurobiology of ADHD. Some research has suggested that people with ADHD may have deficits in mirror neuron activity, which could contribute to difficulties in empathizing with others.
The various symptoms of ADHD can effectively appear like a child is not empathetic. However, it is likely that because of these characteristics, they find it hard to express empathy and therefore don’t truly hone the skill.
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Teaching Empathy: Tips for Helping Children Develop Stronger Empathy
Many mental health professionals believe it is possible for anyone to learn empathy, especially a child, and definitely a child with ADHD. A parent or caregiver must show their child what empathy looks like in actions, behaviors, and words.
Here are tips that will help build a solid foundation:
- Be a Good Example – Children are watching what goes on in their environment all the time. They pick up on things so quickly. Parents need to show empathy to themselves, their children, and others so that their children can model that behavior.
- Discuss Feelings – Openly talk about feelings with your child. This will help them develop a sense of what others may be feeling during any given situation.
- Explain Individuality –, Sometimes children find it hard to view a situation from different viewpoints. Take time to teach that everybody has their own view of the world. Explain that everyone has feelings, but they can be expressed differently from person to person.
- Problem Solve – This one piggybacks off talking about feelings; teach them how to find ways to stand up to adversity. This will improve your child’s ability to better cope with negative feelings and help them find solutions to difficult situations.
- Practice Identifying Facial Expressions – Mirroring starts very young, around eighteen hours after birth, thanks to mirror neurons. Our ability to mirror other people’s behaviors and facial expressions gives us a way to relate and respond to others, to match their feelings. Practice making emotional faces and having your child identify them. The simplest way is to make faces at each other and have fun identifying them. You can also flip through pages of magazines and books and use those as practice. Alternatively, you can also find commercially available cards, worksheets, and other interactive books that are specifically made for practicing identifying facial expressions.
Should Parents Worry About a Child Who Has Low or No Empathy?
Empathy is the crux of humanity; to see from another’s perspective is where compassion and kindness are born. A child with low or no empathy may express aggression and violence towards others.
Remember that empathy grows and develops as children do. The rate of development can be impacted by how the parents express their own ability to be empathetic. That being said, here are some warning signs that apply to kids between the ages of ten and fourteen:
- No sympathy for suffering, whether it be a movie character, family member, friend, or stranger on the street.
- Indifferent to others’ needs.
- Doesn’t consider others’ feelings and doesn’t react or respond to them.
- Does not give compliments to others or will give insincere compliments.
- Shows disinterest in what others are saying.
Authors Brian J. Johnson, a licensed child psychologist, and Laurie D. Berdahl, an obstetrician-gynecologist, wrote Warning Signs: How to Protect Your Kids from Becoming Victims or Perpetrators of Violence and Aggression, and they tell us that parents can teach empathy just like reading or any other skill. Beware of using harsh punishments as research has shown that it hinders the development of empathy. Children need a sensitive, loving environment where they are listened to, where they are safe to express their emotions, and are given attention in order to soundly develop empathy.
Treatment Options for Children with ADHD Who Have Trouble Understanding Emotions
Understanding emotions when a child has ADHD can be difficult. Children and people with ADHD often feel emotions way more intensely than their neurotypical counterparts. The duration of these feelings can get in the way of living everyday life.
This difficulty managing emotions with ADHD can present in many ways. Here are a few:
- Minor annoyances can lead to quick and endless frustration.
- They may hyper-fixate and worry about small things way more than is typical.
- It is hard to calm down after they become angry, annoyed, or sad.
- They are very vulnerable to criticism and take it to heart.
Kids with ADHD have trouble understanding and regulating their emotions due to the dysregulation of their executive functions. This is a set of mental skills that include working memory, flexibility in thinking, and self-control. Executive dysfunction can make it challenging to concentrate, follow directions, and manage emotions.
Just like empathy, executive functioning develops over time. Children with ADHD will get better at managing their emotions as they mature. However, typically they still experience some challenges when they reach adulthood.
There are treatment options available if your child with ADHD is struggling to understand empathy and regulate their emotions. Consult a child psychologist who specializes in ADHD.
Many factors can contribute to a child’s ability to empathize with others, including their age, development level, and life experiences. ADHD can make it difficult for someone to understand and connect with the emotions of others. They may have trouble reading social cues and picking up on emotional cues, or because of other issues relating to impulsivity, distractibility, or hyperactivity. Regardless, empathy skills can be learned and cultivated. Give your child opportunities to practice empathy. If necessary, seek professional help.