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Lying on my couch sick as a dog, I remember watching in dismay as my teen walked straight past me without so much as an “Are you okay, Mom?" or “Is there anything I can do to make you more comfortable?". It made me wonder if empathy is a skill that can be taught and learned. Teens are notorious for self-centered behavior. How do parents make them more aware of the needs of others?
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What Is Empathy?
Empathy can be defined as an ability to discern one’s own feelings from that of another person; a sense of self-awareness. In addition to being able to put oneself in another person’s shoes and see things from the other person’s perspective, one should also be able to regulate his or her own emotional response.
At this point, you might think that these abilities seem like normal adult social skills. However, even adults can have trouble with these abilities. For instance, some people might refrain from helping others who are in need, not because they lack empathy, but because they may not know how to cope with their own emotional reactions to the other’s person’s plight.
So back to the question about teens and empathy, can it be taught? I am inclined to answer “Yes". Whether empathy is a skill that can be learned or whether the capacity for it is innate as parents, we can help it to flourish. Additionally, there are varying degrees of empathy, and with practice, we can develop stronger empathic skills. For teenagers, being able to develop this empathic skill is a crucial step in their development because it enhances their social skills as well as their ability to care for other people.
Studies have shown the lack of empathy as a possible factor in the development of antisocial behaviors such as bullying and cruelty to animals. When the bully is unable to recognize and care about the plight of the victim, he or she is unable to experience guilt and therefore, sees no reason to change and is apt to continue with his or her behavior. Obviously this is an important skill to cultivate.
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Ways To Teach Teens About Empathy
1. Develop a secure attachment with your teen: When a child’s own emotional needs are addressed and met, they are more apt to show empathy and help others who are in distress. As a parent, you can strive to develop a secure relationship with your child; help them know that they can count on you for both emotional and physical support. Research1 shows that children who have parents that help them cope with negative emotions in a sympathetic, solution-oriented way are more likely to demonstrate concern for other kids.
2. Remember that your child is not “Mini-you": Treat your child as an individual with a mind of his or her own. Discuss their emotional and mental states and help them understand how feelings, desires and emotions can influence behavior. You can teach him or her how to recognize and label feelings by modeling the verbal expression of your own feelings as well as those that you have observed in others.
For example, when communicating with your teen, you can use “I" statements like “I felt angry when the cashier was rude to me at the grocery store." This gives them the language to express themselves responsibly. Additionally, you can use reflective listening to help them label feelings in others by asking them questions like “You seem a little upset today, did something happen at school?" This helps children recognize their feelings as well as the importance of expressing them.
3. Model empathic behavior and induce sympathetic feelings: As parents, we can seize everyday opportunities to point out situations that call for empathy. We can generate sympathetic responses in our kids. For instance, while watching a television program like "Glee", in which the kids who are considered “nerds" often have slushies thrown at their faces, you can use that to talk to your child about how that person who was being bullied must feel. Or, if your child comes home and shares with you that a new kid in school was being made fun of, you can model caring by saying “He must be feeling so alone and sad, maybe we can invite him over one day?" When we do this, we are taking things one step further because not only are we labeling feelings, we are also helping kids recognize opportunities for caring for other peoples’ emotional needs, thus helping them brainstorm different ways to help.
4. Walk a mile in someone’s shoes: When teens identify or feel that another person is similar to them, they are more likely to feel empathy for that individual. So one way to teach teens to develop their empathic skills would be to help them discover what they have in common with other individuals. Moreover, in this age of “cyber-ism" where the line between “real" and the “imaginary" is blurred and seldom are there direct consequences for their actions, the more we can humanize the victim's distress, the better our teen will be able to respond with empathy.
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These are just a few suggestions on how to teach empathy to teens. Teaching your teen empathy is like turning their “mirrors" into “windows". A mirror symbolizes self-centeredness, where the teens see only themselves and care only for their own feelings. Windows symbolize empathy, where the teen is able to look beyond their own needs and put themselves in another person’s position.
In addition to teaching them to strengthen their empathic skills, we also have to provide them with opportunities for giving. In our school, teens are required to do a certain amount of volunteer work. This gives them a chance to help others who are less fortunate and opens their eyes up to the circumstances of others. As parents, we can help our teens identify places (e.g., a homeless shelter or hospice) where they can get the chance to work directly with those in need, enabling them to start identifying with those people and further strengthening their empathic development.
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- 1Kestenbaum, R., Farber, EA & Sroufe, LA (1989). Individual differences in empathy among preschoolers: Relation to attachment history. In N. Eisenberg
- Family Values: How to Teach Kids Empathy http://www.beliefnet.com
- Bennett, Deidre, "Everyday Ways To Teach Empathy," http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/exchange/node/715