How Disasters and Trauma Can Affect Children’s Empathy

By Maia Szalavitz, Time

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.

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.

“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.

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…

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