Teaching Your Teen the Importance of Empathy
Helping your teen develop empathy is important because it teaches them to reflect, observe and think about their own behavior and how it affects others. Empathy is the ability to understand the emotions of others. Empathy helps us understand how others are feeling, what their motivations are, and what their perspective might be.
Did you know that teens today are 40 percent less empathetic than those 30 years ago? That is tragic news for our children and society. For starters, it hurts teens’ moral character, and leads to bullying and racism. Also it correlates with more cheating and less resilience. And once kids grow up, a lack of empathy hampers their ability to collaborate, innovate, and problems solve-all must-have skills for the global economy.
Empathy is integral to kids’ current and future happiness, success, and well-being. And the good news is, the immensely human trait of empathy is a strength that can be nurtured and taught at any age (just like learning to ride a bike or speak a foreign language). Dr. Michele Borba has spent the last decade studying empathy, observing dozens of classrooms and interviewing top researchers, and found that empathy can be cultivated. She also discovered that empathetic children use nine essential habits to help them navigate the emotional minefields and ethical challenges they will inevitably face throughout life.
9 Ways to Help Your Teen Develop Empathy
These nine habits also guide their empathic urges and inspire them to help others. And all nine are teachable and culled from the latest science in child development, neuroscience, and social psychology.
1. Emotional Literacy.
So teens can recognize and understand the feelings and needs of themselves and others. Become “feeling detectives.” The next time you and your teen go to the mall or run an errand to the mall or grocery store, encourage your teen to “investigate” how other people might be feeling. Ask questions like: “Listen to the cashier’s voice. How do you think she feels?” “Look how that lady has her hands so tight. See the scowl on her face? What do you think she’s saying to the other girl?”
2. Moral Identity.
So teens will adopt caring values that guide their integrity and activate empathy to help others. Help your teen create a “caring code.” Talk to your teen about the kind of person he wants to become, how he wants to make others feel, what he stands for, etc. Using his answers, help him develop an age-appropriate personal mantra such as “I’m a caring person,” “I know it’s nice to be nice,” or “I reach out to help others.” To help him remember his mantra, suggest that he use it to make a poster for his room, as his screensaver, etc.
3. Perspective Taking.
So they can step into others’ shoes to understand another person’s feelings, thoughts, and views. Switch sides. Next time there’s a sibling battle or friendship tiff, don’t offer advice or instructions. Instead, ask the parties involved to “reverse sides.” You say, “I know you’re upset, but you two can figure out how to solve it. Both of you tell me what happened, but from your sibling’s side.” They listen to each version, and then you ask: “Now that you know both sides, how will you work this out so it’s fair to both of you?”
4. Moral Imagination.
So they can use literature, films, and emotionally charged images as a source of inspiration to feel with others. Reading to develop moral imagination — study found that reading for pleasure at age fifteen was the most important indicator of the future success of the child. Reading can make our kids not only smarter, but also kinder!
This help teens learn to manage strong emotions and reduce personal distress so they can help others. Learn the ABCs of stress management. Self-management is crucial for empathy. (Remember, teens who are focused on their own strong emotions such as anger or anxiety, as well as kids who become easily over-aroused by other’s needs, are less able to recognize other’s feelings and/or calmly think of how to help.) Teach ways to cope (and to decrease the empathy gap) with these ABC’s of stress management:
A = Aware. Teach your child to tune in to his feelings. “What am I feeling?” “What do I need?” I have to take care of myself so I can help others.”
B = Breathe. Focusing on deep, slow breaths can reduce stress and help your teen better manage his emotions.
C = Calm. Find what helps your child decompress: exercising, being with others, journaling, listening to music. Encourage him to make this his go-to action or activity when he is feeling stress or other strong emotions.
6. Practicing Kindness.
Kindness to increase children’s concern about the welfare and feelings of others. Use the “Two Kind Rule.”
Teens learn kindness by comforting, helping, caring, sharing, and cooperating, not through hearing lectures.
An easy way to help kids practice kindness is using the Two Kind Rule: “Say or do at least two kind things to people each day.”
To nurture empathy, the deed must come “straight from the giver’s heart,” be delivered “face-to-face” (at least at the beginning so the giver sees the recipient’s response), and be delivered without expecting anything in return.
Help kids see how to put this rule into practice by brainstorming possibilities together: say hello and smile, share something, help around the house without being asked, give a high five to a deserving person, ask someone who looks lonely to eat or play with you, etc.
7. Collaboration and Teamwork.
Collaboration to help teens work with others to achieve shared goals for the benefit of all. Don’t hold your “we.” Self-absorption diminishes empathy, so intentionally switch your pronouns (when appropriate) from “Them” to “Us” and “Me” to “We” when talking with your kids. “What should we do?” “Which would be better for us?” “Let’s take a ‘We’ vote to find out what we choose.” It may sound simple, but subtle pronoun changes can go a long way toward helping kids realize that life should revolve around “Us” and “We” not “Me” and “I.”
8. Moral Courage.
Moral Courage emboldens teens to speak out, step in, and help others. Start with HEART. Many kids will need to grow their courage—and perhaps their communication skills—before they’re ready to publicly stand up for others. So teach: “It’s never too late to show a friend you care” with ways to comfort someone at the scene . . . or later. (Over time, putting these strategies into practice will help kids develop the confidence they need to become Upstanders!)
H = Help. Run for first aid. Call others to help. Pick up what’s broken.
E = Empathize. “He did that to me and I was scared.” “I know how you feel.”
A = Assist. “Do you need help?” “I’ll find a teacher.” “I’ll walk you to the office.”
R = Reassure. “It happens to other kids.” “I’m still your friend.” “Teachers will help.”
T = Tell how you feel. “You didn’t deserve that.” “I’m so sorry.” “I know it’s not true.”
9. Altruistic Leadership.
Compassionate Changemaking and Altruistic Leadership Abilities motivate children to make a difference for others, no matter how small it may be. Help kids make a difference (and encourage direct contact). Teen’s who see altruism as part of who they are and how they live their lives are more likely to become Changemakers. Provide regular opportunities for your teen to infuse altruism into her life.
Remember that empathy is best activated face- to-face, so select projects that put your child in direct contact with the recipient. It could be bringing toys to the children’s shelter or delivering books to a senior citizens’ home.
Then, keep it going! A one-time-only service project is usually not enough to instill an empathic mindset. Turn giving to others into a lifelong habit.
Empathy can be cultivated, and doing so will give our teens a proven social, emotional, moral, and cognitive advantage. Learn more details on building empathy in children and teens in Dr. Borba’s bestselling book, UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World.