A research project in Israel involving 63 families with 11-year-old twins, one typically developing (TD) and one not typically developing (non-TD), found that the TD twin developed a stronger understanding of others’ emotion or “cognitive empathy.” Also, while girls overall tend to show more understanding of emotion than boys, this is not the case among girls and boys who have a twin sibling with special needs.
Humans develop empathy in response to the basic need to care and we know that children who grow up with non-TD siblings often take on greater caregiving roles. We also know from other research that siblings influence each other’s development of empathy.
In the Israeli study, researchers measured cognitive empathy by asking children to score statements such as “I can often understand how people feel even before they tell me.”
“The researchers suggest that a child with a non-TD twin needs to develop better skills of understanding because of the difficulties their siblings experience – for example, with communication.”
The children could have said what they thought the researchers wanted to hear, but this is unlikely because they did not score higher than their peers on other measures of empathy, namely “emotional empathy” and “prosociality.” Emotional empathy – feeling others’ emotions rather than just understanding them – was measured by asking children to rate statements like “When I see someone being taken advantage of, I feel protective toward them.” Prosociality was measured by inviting children to play a computer game that led to a choice about allocating points needed to earn a prize: “Which do you prefer? (1) To earn 20 points for yourself and not donate any points to children in need. (2) To earn 10 points for yourself and donate 10 points to children in need.”
Why might a difference exist in cognitive empathy but not in emotional empathy? The researchers suggest that a child with a non-TD twin needs to develop better skills of understanding because of the difficulties their siblings experience – for example, with communication. Meanwhile, greater emotional empathy “might be disadvantageous for the empathizer’s adaptive functioning in a relationship with an individual in distress”.
The study focused on cognitive and emotional empathy toward others in general, not empathy toward children’s non-TD twin in particular.
The study involved 63 twin pairs drawn from a larger study of 778 families with 11-year-old twins. The non-TD twin siblings had a variety of conditions, including language-communication problems (12), cerebral palsy (5), autism spectrum disorder (2), hearing impairment (1), and visual impairment (1).
Whilst most earlier research on children with a non-TD sibling has focused on the negative impacts of having a non-TD sibling, some other studies have also found enhanced empathy, including studies of children with Down Syndrome and of siblings of children with autism. However, results of such research are not entirely consistent due to different methods of measuring and differences in the ages of the children (during childhood or later in adulthood).