How Disasters and Trauma Can Affect Children’s Empathy

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Children sharing ice-cream on stick near Sapa.

Do children become more kind and empathetic after a disaster— or does the experience make them more focus more on self-preservation?

The first study to examine the question in an experimental way shows that children’s reactions may depend on their age.

The ability to study the altruistic and empathetic tendencies of youth before and after a natural disaster emerged

after an earthquake struck in May 2008 in Mianyang, China. Scientists from the U.S. and Canada were already collaborating with Chinese researchers in the town in Sichuan province on a study of altruistic behavior when the earthquake, which measured 8.0 on the Richter scale, killed some 87,000 people, including many children.

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The original study was designed to track sharing behavior among a group of 30 six-year-olds and 30 nine-year-olds from impoverished backgrounds in two rural schools. The students each met individually with a researcher who offered them 100 appealing stickers, from which they could choose 10 favorites to keep. They were then given the choice to donate some of the remainder to an anonymous classmate who did not participate in the study. The children placed their donation in a sealed envelope in a “mailbox” while the researcher was blindfolded so the children would think that their donation was anonymous.

After the earthquake, the scientists had the unique opportunity to turn a tragedy into a research opportunity. One month after the disaster, they conducted the same test of sharing behavior with another 60 kids of the same age and background from the same schools. Three years later, another 60 students were tested and their choices were compared to those of the earlier groups.

Before the quake, both six- and nine-year olds donated similar amounts on average: one to two stickers. But one month later — when 95% were homeless, nearly 2% had lost an immediate family member and 8% had injured relatives — the six-year olds were slightly more selfish, while the nine-year-olds were more generous. At that point, the younger kids gave away an average of half a sticker (many gave nothing) — while the older ones donated around 4, nearly half of their allotment. Three years later, however, both numbers had reverted to their initial levels.

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“Our study demonstrates that a natural disaster affects children’s pro-social tendencies, and [does so] differently depending on their age,” says study co-author Jean Decety of the University of Chicago. “Young ones’ acute response is to become more egoistic and older ones’ [immediate response is to become] more altruistic.” The research, which was led by Kang Lee of the University of Toronto will be published in a forthcoming issue of Psychological Science.

Decety thinks empathy — the capacity to feel others’ pain and act compassionately — is what accounts for the differences. “There are developmental differences in empathy,” he says, and younger children may not be able to regulate their emotions as well as older ones because the prefrontal regions in the brain responsible for such control are less mature. Faced with extreme stress, their self-regulation capacities regress even further. “Adverse events appear to cause six-year-olds to revert back to selfish ways typical of early childhood,” the authors write. Even in situations with less tragic consequences, but which are nonetheless stressful, such as living through a divorce, or getting lost in a public place, many children may resort to more immature tendencies.

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By age nine, however, most youngsters have mature enough brains to not only recognize the feelings of others, but to try to mitigate bad ones. Their increased altruism during distress reflects what has been seen in many disasters, from man-made ones such as the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., to natural catastrophes like Hurricane Sandy.

To further understand how lasting the changes in empathy triggered by the tragedy were, the researchers conducted another experiment on a different group of more than 240 students three years after the natural disaster. This time, the researchers presented 123 children from the earthquake-affected area and 128 from unaffected areas, all between the ages of 6 and 9, with pictures of either earthquake damage or neutral scenes. (The earthquake images were first vetted by the children’s teachers and the kids were told they could quit at any time— they were also given the chance to speak with a psychologist afterwards to ensure there were no negative effects from viewing the photos).

The students were presented with the same sticker scenario. This time, the six-year-olds from both affected and unaffected areas showed no differences in giving, whether they saw reminders of the disaster or not. But nine-year-olds— no matter what region they were from, increased their giving when reminded of the disaster. Moreover, the more empathetic a child was (as measured on a validated test that examines their reactions to pictures of people in pain), the more likely the disaster images were to increase altruism.

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“[The study] clearly shows that empathy and altruism are naturally linked, and that pro-social behavior and caring for others have evolved from our natural capacity to share emotions and care for others,” Decety says.

While the results support the intuitive sense that the personal experience of pain can increase compassion, there are cases when it can have the opposite effect. Indeed, research shows that if suffering occurs too early in life, when young brains are not equipped to process the experience, or if the pain is too overwhelming, it can make people less sensitive and more focused on self-preservation, such as often occurs in cases of child abuse and neglect. “Painful experiences may increase empathy and care, provided that one can regulate one’s own emotion,” Decety says. The findings suggest that our social and biological structures may be biased toward cooperation and empathy for others: “Without caring for others, we would not survive as a species,” he says.

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