Empathy - Empathy Definitions

Developing empathy begins in childhood, through the family setting. Empathy is modeled for children by their caregivers; when the caregivers provide love and care, meet children’s basic needs, and provide opportunities for children to express their own emotions (Swick, 2005, p. 53), they are teaching their children how to be empathetic.


Mom and Baby


Through these relationships children learn and develop the ability to empathize with others and express care for those around them. Conversely when basic needs are not met, or a caring relationship is not established children are “more prone to be insensitive to the needs of others” and to develop aggressive or non-social behavior (Swick, 2005, p. 54).





Goleman (1995) identifies two dimensions of empathy, self-awareness and self-other relational awareness. Being empathetic requires a large amount of self- knowledge. Development of self-awareness and understanding of emotions is guided by caregivers and without it children are unable to identify and analyze the emotions in others. “Thus, children need many loving experiences and opportunities to express their feelings about being loved. They also need experiences in managing their emotional lives – learning to control their reactions to various situations (Swick, 2005, p. 54). This foundation for empathy in childhood leads to an adult’s ability to analyze one’s own background and emotions, step away from your those experiences and perspectives to better appreciate the experiences of another.  This involves adopting or exploring views and perspectives that one may not agree with or understand, requiring conscious effort, and an active role in pursuing an empathic response.  This conscious effort leads to knowledge and skill building around acquiring contextual knowledge; building a cognitive concept of an experience outside of, or separate from your own, and responding to that new and different perspective. The response is usually some change in perspective or point of view, and/or an action of some kind, a sympathetic emotional response, dialogue, or aid.