Teaching Your Teen Empathy

Empathy is the ability to identify with or experience (vicariously) the feelings, thoughts or attitudes of someone else. Empathy (or lack thereof) is a key factor in how people treat each other. Teenagers are often perceived as selfish and insensitive, but there are ways to bring out their empathetic sides. As a parent, you are the most important role model in your teen’s life, particularly when it comes to passing on good (and bad) behaviors. In teaching your child empathy, you must lead by example.

The Teen Brain

Image Credit: National Institutes of Health (NIH)

In an article published in the Wall Street Journal, writer Sue Shellenbarger explains that biology is to blame for your teen’s apparent insensitivity: “In adolescence, critical social skills that are needed to feel concern for other people and understand how they think are undergoing major changes.” Researchers used to think that empathy was fully formed in childhood, but recent findings show that “the brain regions that support social cognition, which helps us understand and interact with others successfully, continue to change dramatically” during the teenage years. While the ability to understand another’s viewpoint is automatic in adults, it seems to require a much more conscious effort on the part of teenagers. Your child’s brain is still developing; this is the time to showcase empathetic behavior and encourage empathy in your teen.

Be There

Your teen needs to feel safe and secure in their own relationships at home in order to empathize with the needs of others. If your child knows that they can count on you to be there for them, both emotionally and physically, they are more likely to sympathize and offer help to their peers who might be in distress. Studies have also shown that sensitive, responsive parenting encourages empathy in children; help your teen cope with their own problems with sympathy and problem-solving and avoid trivializing their emotions.

Acknowledge Their Individuality

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Treat your teenager like the unique-minded individual that they are. Talk to them about their feelings and how these feelings influence their behavior—how do their beliefs and desires motivate them? Helping your teen to understand their own mental state encourages them to think about the feelings and perspectives of others.

Explain Your Discipline

Your teenager isn’t stupid and most likely won’t respond to “Because I said so.” When they misbehave, sit them down and explain the reasoning behind your punishment. An American study showed that parents who emphasize the reasons behind their rules and who explain the logical consequences of bad behavior have kids who are more concerned for other people and show more remorse when they screw up.

Showcase Empathy

Image Credit: Irish Defence Forces

When you’re watching the news with your child and you see hundreds of thousands of migrants sleeping in train stations across Europe, take a moment to discuss the situation with them. Talk about what those people might be experiencing and how they might be feeling—when you model sympathetic behavior, you encourage your teen to think of others. Remind your child of all of the things that they have in common with those in distress, who are so far away and who might not look like them.

Empathy is an important skill in developing ‘pro-social behavior’—building relationships, maintaining friendships and building strong communities. Encourage your teen to walk in others’ shoes and lead the way by doing so yourself.

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