How a moral sense, conscience, and empathy are internalized
A person’s “moral compass” begins to form as emotional brain circuits are wired, creating gut reactions to help guide decision-making. This wiring begins long before a child can understand intellectual concepts such as religion or morality.
From the very beginning of life, neurohormones such as oxytocin, vasopressin, and prolactin weave bonds between parent and child — forming the physiological basis for feelings of connection, familiarity, trust and belonging.
Each caregiver-child interaction is accompanied by neurobiological states in both parties. Depending upon the quality of the interaction, these states promote or interfere with the wiring of healthy brain circuitry.
From the earliest age, a child absorbs and incorporates experiences and interactions with those around them, whether of warmth and kindness, or cruelty and harshness, and these are “imprinted” in the amygdala, insula, cingulate, prefrontal cortex and other areas of the brain and affect the healthy functioning of the child’s physiology and nervous system.
Empathic Responses Start Early
When we first experience empathy as children our initial emotional reactions don’t have a mental context. For example, when a baby hears another baby crying or sees somebody in distress they often interpret that person’s distress as their own and start to cry as well. This “emotional contagion” (activated by the mirror neuron system) continues in other forms as we mature (i.e. yawning in response to other’s yawns).
By the time they become toddlers, most children already reach out to help or display interest or concern for the suffering of others. Children who develop strong empathy at a young age are often more helping, sharing, and caring in later life as well as less aggressive and more pro-social.
Infants as young as 12 months of age begin to comfort victims of distress, and 14 to 18 month old children display spontaneous, unrewarded helping behaviors. [Forman et al. 2004 (citation below)]
Girls tend to be more comforting and consoling and boys tend to offer practical help like fixing something or physical protection. However, there are a lot of exceptions to this and no child should be held to a preconceived notion of gender behavior.
Around the age of two, self-conscious emotions such as embarrassment, guilt, remorse, and shame first arise in conjunction with self-awareness and more sophisticated mentalizing (Theory of Mind). A child is motivated by a search for parental approval while also testing parental boundaries and personal limits and learns socialization lessons from early interactions with other children and siblings.
By the time we are about six, we have established a basic cognitive moral map. In addition to an empathic model for understanding other people’s suffering, experience and thoughts; this map includes mental ideas about others’ intent and fairness, right and wrong, and deontological social norms established as a set of acceptable, obligatory and taboo behaviors. These mental constructs are linked to our gut responses and become part of the basis for a life-long moral/ethical code. We also acquire language skills to express these ideas.
Children with different types of temperaments and resilience levels develop in distinct ways. Little children with developmental problems may have trouble identifying emotions or recognizing another’s distress and thus need extra guidance to learn how others are feeling. The earlier this intervention begins, the more chance there is for an optimal outcome. In cases such as high functioning autism and Asperger’s Syndrome, compensatory skills can be acquired, such as learning to “cognitively” recognize the emotional correlations of specific facial expressions—as they may not respond automatically (like most people) to micro-expressions, demeanor, and tone of voice.
Other children with reward deficiencies may be more prone to oppositional disorders, and later behavior problems. However, appropriate interventions by parents, counselors and teachers can help these kids develop internal regulation, so instead of being labeled “troublemakers” and thrown into the pipeline to delinquency, they can become the creative, brave and unique people they truly are.
A child’s observation of a parent’s reaction to situations is wired into learning and memory, whether or not the behavior is approved of within a specific religious or moral belief system. When parents (and other adults in the environment) act with compassion and show respect toward others, the concern is expressed in their eyes and demeanor and leaves an imprint in the child.
Consistent and loving emotional interactions help children develop a healthy sense of self that is not dependent upon absolutist tenets. Children with secure emotional lives can more easily learn to feel comfortable with the ambiguities and mysteries of life. However, when there is harshness, violence, or instability, or helplessness, many forms of disruption can occur leading to a higher rate of mood, behavioral, learning and problems later in life.
There are many changes in the body and the brain that occur during developmental stages that can help or hurt a child’s ability to perceive what somebody else is experiencing and have authentic concern for others.
Coercive parenting, where a child is pushed and pulled by a parent’s whims, where every aspect of their life is tightly controlled, is very destructive. This control is not always direct, but can also show up as undue or implicit disapproval, admonishment, “guilt-tripping”, yelling, impatience, or harshness. Narcissistic parents set the child up to fit their image, to be something that will reflect well on them—and the child may have trouble developing a healthy sense of self.
But parents who give indiscriminate and constant praise can also be unintentionally damaging. By not providing the trial and error learning and honest feedback a child needs in order to build skills of competence, and a sense of perspective, the child does not trust his or her own ability to improve or progress through effort. They rely on the approval of others or have a distorted view of actual attainments.