Growing Empathy through Mindfulness

Recently I read a book by Michele Borba called Unselfie which stated that our children are currently experiencing an "Empathy Epidemic" in the US "impacting their future health, wealth, authentic happiness, relationship satisfaction and ability to bounce back from adversity." (1) Upon further research I came to learn that "levels of compassion and empathy are lower now than at anytime in the past 30 years and are declining at an increasing rate." (2) As a mother of two, young boys and a classroom teacher of 15 plus years, this spoke to me and compelled me to dig a little deeper. After all, whenever the word "epidemic" is slapped onto the end of a word, it sounds serious and I couldn't deny that this made so much sense it scared me. I came to learn what many researchers are discovering that empathy, although integral to a child's current and future success, happiness and well being, "is not any inborn trait"(1) meaning that children are not hardwired to care and therefore must be taught. 

As a Mindful Mentor I wanted to explore how we can teach empathy to our children through mindfulness and whether that teaching would turn into meaningful action.

So what is empathy anyway? 

Empathy is defined as the capacity that allows us to understand the minds of others and to resonate emotionally with those states. (3) We've probably all heard the saying "to stand in someone else's shoes," and this is indeed an aspect of empathy, however, to truly understand someone else's perspective, we must first know what it feels like to stand in our own shoes.  This is where mindfulness comes into play.  With Mindfulness meditation, we practice focusing our attention on a single point of focus to train our awareness to remain present and acknowledge our own experience(s).  As we come to experience the ups and downs of our own inner life, our ability to understand others also expands. 

Mindfulness strengthens our Self-Empathy

"Mindfulness teaches kids to connect to themselves. When they aren't empathetic, they aren't kind to others or their communities, it's usually because they're not connected to themselves."-Ali Smith, Holistic Life Foundation

With a mindful mindset, we help children to explore their thoughts, feelings and sensations felt in their body with a curious mind. We empower them to recognize their human qualities that we all have thoughts (50-70k a day) and we all have emotions, both comfortable and uncomfortable.  We validate their experiences and give them permission to acknowledge their suffering as easily as they do their joys through equanimity.  We teach them of impermanence by understanding that their thoughts are like the clouds in the sky that come and go and we practice detachment by viewing our strong emotions like the storms that will eventually pass if we let them rather than inhabiting them.  But most importantly, we practice self-compassion (sympathetic concern for suffering with a desire to alleviate it) by noticing what is and responding in a gentle, non-judgemental way. 

"Studies on self-compassion have linked it to greater emotional resilience, more caring relationships and less reactive anger." (4) 

Stress Reduces Empathy

Mindfulness and empathy are linked through their shared relationship with Stress.  While mindfulness meditation  decreases stress, stress has been proven to weaken empathy.(5)  Think of your own experience: When your mind is pooling with parental responsibility or you're trying to get something done quickly, how do you respond when a  child is hurt or upset? It's hard to respond in a caring way when we are stressed ourselves. So therefore, mindfulness programs that reduce stress also enhance empathy.

What does Neuroscience say?

There have been some interesting studies that reveal not only how mindfulness impacts the brain positively, there are also some intriguing results that explore empathy and the brain.  Tania Singer, a leading scientist investigating empathy and the brain, identifies the parts of the brain responsible for empathetic responses known as the anterior insula and the cingulate cortex. Interestingly, the results of her study indicate that several brain regions were impacted by meditative practice and the anterior insula and the cingulate cortex were among the impacted regions. (5)

But does Mindfulness training turn Empathy into Action?

To assess the link between mindfulness and kindness some Psychological Scientist at Northeastern conducted a cool experiment to test just this.  They created two groups-one group received 3 weeks of online  mindfulness training and the other, 3 weeks of online cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) without mindfulness.  At the end of the three weeks, both groups were asked to come to the office to complete the survey (but this is where the experiment really began).  Before the participants arrived, three chairs had been set up and two researchers (known as confederates) were already sitting in two of the chairs.  As the (real) participants came into the office, they took a seat in the remaining chair.  While they proceeded to wait, another researcher (another confederate) arrived on crutches, not actually hurt, but acting in pain.  They limped to a place to lean against the wall, sighing in discomfort.  To assess kindness, the research team  measured whether the real participant would offer their chair to the injured person to relieve their pain. (6).  

Guess what happened? Good news! The mindfulness group offered their chair at more than twice the rate than the group that received CBT (5) proving that focusing awareness on our breath, our body and our lives does indeed have a another positive result of opening our hearts! 

When we practice mindfulness meditation, we not only improve our own capacity for empathy & compassion, we enhance the lives and experiences of those around us, especially our children! The kindness we extend to ourselves through mindfulness has a ripple effect outward to our homes, our families and our communities.  We listen more intently, judge less, relate more easily to one another and we are ultimately happier.

Time and time again studies show that students who are kinder and more cooperative with their peers do better as adults. (4)

As parents, educators and leaders we have a responsibility to our children and their future to promote their personal wellness.  Of course we all want our kids to be happy and successful, but are we teaching them the skills needed to achieve these lofty goals? What would it look like if we all prioritized  emotional well being? If we practiced Loving Kindness for ourselves and others? If we did one thing "mindfully" a day? Could we end bullying, eliminate violence, promote a more peaceful existence? I know that's a world worth working towards! Whether you sit and practice as a family, group or just for yourself, one mindful moment is better than none. 

 Remember, what we practice grows stronger!

Amy Rubin

Founder of SELFF (Social/Emotional Learning for Friends and Families)


1-Borba, Michelle,  Unselfie-Why Empathetic Kids Suceed in Our All-About-Me World

2-Konrath, Sarah, University of Michigan

3-Gonzalez-Lincres, C., Shamay-Tsoory, S. G., & Brune, M (2013) Towards a Neurosciene of Empathy: ontogeny, phylogeny, brain mechanisms, context and psychopathology, Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews

4-Bergstrom, Chris, Mindfulness for Kids and Teens-Empathy and Loving Kindness Practice,

5-Brensilver, Matthew, PhD, Mindfulness and Empathy,

6-Lim, D., Condon, P. & DeSteno, D. (2015) Mindfulness and compassion: an examination of mechanism and scalability