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Now Is the Right Time!
As a parent or someone in a parenting role, you play an essential role in helping your teen develop empathy. There are intentional ways to grow a healthy parent-teen relationship while growing your teen’s capacity for empathy from the time they are born all the way through their teen years. Empathy is essential for your teen to experience happy healthy relationships because it allows for emotional connection to others beginning early with family and friends and extending as they develop into successful school, work, social, and romantic relationships.
Empathy is the way people effectively relate to one another. It’s the ability to perceive what others are feeling, process that information, and respond in a compassionate manner. The ability to understand what someone else is feeling requires that your teen first be able to identify and recognize their own feelings, which is not always easy. It takes practice in self-awareness to grow this emotional literacy – a skill many adults struggle with as well. Medical professionals, businesses, and even politicians invest large sums in empathy trainings where they learn the foundational skill of identifying and labeling their own feelings so that they can go on to identify and understand the feelings of others and act compassionately. However, parents or those in a parenting role should not feel intimidated by the skills required for instilling empathy and identifying feelings. Empathy is a skill that can be taught and learned, and the parent-teen relationship is the prime setting.
As a parent or someone in a parenting role, you can nurture, model, and teach the skills of empathy for your teen. Starting at birth, parents interact with their infant by gazing into their eyes and making this first essential emotional connection. From there, parents spend daily face-to-face time with their child mirroring the sounds and expressions their child makes. This reflection of facial expressions and attitudes allows the child to recognize their feelings and uniqueness reflected in you. As your teen develops and learns more about themself and their own feelings through their interactions with you, you can help them develop the skill of reading, identifying, and understanding the feelings of others. Reading the feelings of others involves paying attention to their body language. In fact, teens who can read nonverbal feelings tend to be more successful and emotionally stable.1
Once parents and teens are able to notice and identify their feelings and the feelings of others accurately, there is an opportunity to change what they do, change how they think, and change how they respond. Growing these healthy social and emotional habits leads to intentional behaviors that promote empathy and healthy relationships.
Your 15-19-year-old is going through significant developmental stages involving their social awareness and understanding of others’ viewpoints, and now is the right time to get them thinking about how others think and feel to grow their skills in empathy.
Your teen’s ability to understand the experience of others and to make meaningful connections with people in their life is based on their capacity for empathy. You can support their developing empathy and enrich your relationship with your teen as you embrace teachable moments to interact and cultivate an awareness of feelings.
Today, in the short term, building empathy can create
- greater opportunities for connection, cooperation, and enjoyment;
- feelings of trust, safety, and security;
- greater ability to develop healthy relationships with peers and adults including those who are different from your teen; and
- a sense of wellbeing and motivation to engage.
Tomorrow, in the longer term, growing empathy in your teen
- prepares them for success in school;
- builds skills in self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, healthy relationships, and responsible decision making;
- offers a greater sense of connectedness and responsibility to the larger community and world; and
- deepens family trust and intimacy.
This five-step process helps you and your teen build skills in empathy as well as other important life skills. The same process can be used to address other parenting issues as well (learn more about the process).
These steps are done best when you and your teen are not tired or in a rush.
Step 1. Get Your Teen Thinking by Getting Their Input
Teens have a natural capacity for empathy, but like most skills their emerging empathy must be cultivated and encouraged. A good place to start is by asking questions and prompting their thinking. Asking teens to reflect on their own feelings then shifting your questions to how they perceive others might be feeling can help them realize things they have in common. Knowing how to pause in the midst of a big emotion in order to identify and name a feeling does not come naturally for most teens; it requires parents or those in a parenting role to gain input, teach/model, practice, support, and recognize.
Gaining your teen’s input when drawing attention to how they are feeling and to the feelings of others supports your teen’s interests and advances their learning. Asking questions prompts their thinking and helps them understand their own and others’ feelings, thoughts, and motivations. In gaining input from your teen, you are
- supporting them to create a plan to pause and recognize/name their own feelings;
- showing the importance of and complex skills involved with reflecting on others’ feelings and thoughts to better understand them;
- letting them know that you are open to talking about all kinds of people, relationships, and differences, even if those conversations may feel uncomfortable at first;
- making sure they know that you see the ways that people are different from each other and that you celebrate and respect those differences;
- countering any messages of exclusion your teen might receive from peers or others; and
- deepening your ability to communicate with one another.
- Ask your teen to make a plan for pausing in the heat of a big emotion. “What could you do when you are upset to help you remember to stop and identify your feeling? Would you like to close your eyes and focus on the exact feeling that is surfacing? Would it help to take a second to breathe and acknowledge your feeling? What would work best for you?”
- Practice reading social cues. Each time there is an opportunity, ask your teen, “How do you think your friend feels?” Remember that naming how someone else feels takes skill and practice. Misreading another’s feelings or thoughts is a natural part of learning to become more accurate.
- For example, if you are people watching while waiting in the car line at school or in the parking lot at the grocery store, see if you can notice and reflect together on cues from other people’s faces and body language. For example, “Their face is red and their eyelids are pulled up while their brow looks furrowed. Do you think they’re feeling frustrated? What else could that mean?” Explore interpretations – embarrassment? Anger? Then ask: “Which feels right?”
- Ask about what it means to truly focus on a friend in order to understand and show empathy. In order to show genuine care, phones and other distractions need to be put away. Ask “How do you show others that you care enough to fully listen?”
- You could also ask your teen to rate their feeling on a scale of 1-10. “So, you are feeling frustrated. How frustrated are you on a scale from ‘1 – not very frustrated at all’ to ‘10 – the most frustrated you have ever felt?’”
- It is important to withhold judgment when your teen expresses their feelings. You want to encourage that all feelings are valid, and empathy means believing how another person says they are feeling even if their feelings do not align with how you have felt during a similar experience. This can be challenging for parents when their teen may have a big emotional reaction to something that seems small to an adult; validating their big feeling is the first step to learning to help them cope with these feelings and recognize the feelings of those around them.
- You may have to help your teen as they learn to identify their feelings, and there will be times that your teen may confuse the words they choose with the feelings they feel. This is where a feelings chart is a helpful tool as you learn together the physical and facial expressions of different feelings.
- Reflect on friends and people in your teen’s life. If your teen is feeling unsure about how others are feeling or is buried in their own feelings, ask questions to help them. You could say,
- “What do you notice the other person is feeling?”
- “How do you know from their facial expression?”
- “What does their voice sound like? How are they standing or moving?”
- “How would you feel if you were in that situation?”
- Discuss noticing pain and what to do when you feel another’s pain. When your teen shares stories of friends or peers they know who are experiencing pain, ask about it. You might ask, “How do you know they are in pain?” Then, you might share ideas of what you can do when you are feeling another’s pain or even suffering. Ask, “Is there one small compassionate action you can take to show you care?” Doing something – even if small – shows a teen small ways they can help and alleviates a little of another’s and their own pain as they take action.
- Treat your teens as the digital experts they are. Ask them to teach you about the places they visit online and the characters/people they encounter. Ask about their feelings when they are viewing social media. And ask them how they think other people feel when they get comments, judgments, or criticism. Be sure not to judge your teen when doing this but maintain your own curiosity, interest, and openness to learn.
Because teens are curious about others, any social situations, news stories, or community problems are opportunities to raise good questions about others’ thoughts and feelings for important practice with the complexities of empathic thinking. Raise these conversations regularly to offer practice with a variety of people and situations.
Step 2. Teach New Skills by Interactive Modeling
Your reflective questions gaining input from your teen will naturally lead into empathy skill building, perspective taking, appreciation of diversity, and respect for others. Teaching can help your teen grow new skills and behaviors. Learning new skills and behaviors requires teaching/modeling, practice, support, and recognition.
Paying attention to how you identify, understand, and express your own feelings and behaviors is an important place to start. It gives your teen practice accurately identifying emotions in someone else with whom they are close. You might ask yourself:
- “How do I experience challenging emotions like worry, fear, anger, rejection?”
- “When do I tend to hide certain feelings or mask them with other easier-to-accept feelings like covering up hurt or anxiousness with an outward expression of anger?”
- “How do I let my teen know and understand what I am feeling?”
Teens first need to learn to empathize with you. Yes, teens are keenly attuned to their peers, but you are still incredibly influential in their lives. They can learn empathy from you if you are vulnerable and transparent with them about your own feelings. If you are like most, you have learned to hide or mask emotions that may challenge or upset others. So raising your own self-awareness and actively working on how you communicate emotions is key to helping your teen develop this critical life skill. Your modeling of healthy feelings identification and expression is a powerful teacher. If you are experiencing a big emotion, it is healthy to give yourself a moment of quiet to stop and truly identify your own feeling; then you will be ready to articulate how you are feeling in a respectful manner to your teen.
Learning about developmental milestones can help you better understand what your teen is experiencing.2
- Fifteen-year-olds are in one of the final years of major physical changes that occur in puberty. They can be preoccupied with peer interactions and impressions. Teens this age may fear failure in front of their peers, so they may avoid certain projects or tasks to dodge potential feelings of humiliation. Their peers are highly influential, yet teens at this age still look to you for encouragement that they can handle bigger expectations and work loads. Their peer group can present all sorts of worries like who’s in the “in” and “out” crowds, who they are attracted to, and with whom they want to build friendships. They can misinterpret nonverbal and verbal communication when attempting to empathize. Strong friendships and relationships with other adults – teachers, coaches, band directors – can serve as a key support and also help motivate your teen to work hard in school. Your empathic listening, coaching, and support of their connections with others can make a difference in their sense of wellbeing.
- Sixteen-year-olds are nearing the end of the awkwardness of their new physical being and are beginning to feel and appear more confident in themselves and who they are. They may have new important goals outside of school and, along with them, worries related to learning to drive, getting a part-time job, or trying out a romantic partnership. All these are critical steps in their exploration of adult life. They also may be measuring their accomplishment of these goals in comparison with their peers.
- Seventeen-year-olds have more serious pursuits on their mind and can become highly focused on their academic and life goals as graduation is approaching and they’re facing life after high school. At times, they may appear to feel invincible and, perhaps, overly confident while at other times, they might resort to behaviors from earlier years, seeming fragile and scared. It can become a highly stressful time, so your support during this time is critical.
- Eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds are now considered emerging adults gaining the ability to vote and socially recognized as adults. It’s likely your emerging adult will be leaving some friendships behind as peers take different paths for their future. They are also attempting to create relationships that will support them in their new environment. These relationships can be a critical new support as they serve as the first “adult” friendships in their newly established life. At times, your emerging adult may exude confidence while at other times, they may feel highly insecure and run to you needing comfort and security. This is a time for redefining your relationship. You can support them by paying close attention to their needs, offering assurance that they are ready to do it on their own, and allowing for their independence. It can help to offer the perspective that others are just as scared about their future as your emerging adult is.
Teaching is different than just telling. Teaching builds basic skills, grows problem-solving abilities, and sets your teen up for success. Teaching also involves modeling and practicing the positive behaviors you want to see, promoting skills, and preventing problems. Empathy is a skill that can be taught.
- Discuss the needs and challenges of the bigger world. Teens can act in self-centered ways. Empathy and developing a sense of purpose in life require teens to have beyond-the-self interests.3 Whether it’s global news or local events, discuss the stories that demonstrate concerns beyond your teen’s school and home world. Be sure and humanize those stories by considering how those involved are feeling.
- Create the rule or expectation in your household: Feelings are always right and okay! This helps each family member feel safe to express what they are feeling. What you do with those feelings is the important next step that determines whether you take responsibility for your own feelings and actions so that you do not harm yourself or others.
- Do daily feelings check-ins as a routine at dinnertime or another moment when family members are together! Talk to family members about the importance of emotional honesty. Agree not to judge one another but care for each other when challenging feelings are expressed. Post your feelings chart somewhere visible as a reminder!
- Notice facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language in others that indicate emotions. Remember communication is 90% body language and emotional signals and only 10% verbal. Practice while watching a movie together or while people watching at a busy airport or mall.
- Notice pain and suffering. Think together about ways in which to show care or offer help. Take one small step together to help a person in pain. Discuss how it feels before taking action and after taking action.
- Create opportunities with your teen to experience diversity. Place yourself in parts of town where there are people of cultures, races, or creeds you don’t typically encounter. Make a caring connection.
- Participate as a family in service. Consider what community issues you want to address and find ways to volunteer together. Reflect afterward on the feelings and concerns of those served.
Don’t tell your teen what they feel; ask instead. You want to empower teens with their chance to articulate what’s in their hearts. Be sure to ask about a mix of emotions if you are perceiving them. You might say, “You look sad and frustrated. Is that right?”
Step 3. Practice to Grow Empathy Skills and Develop Habits
Your daily routines can be opportunities for you and your teen to practice vital new skills if you seize those chances. Practice provides important opportunities to grow empathy as they interact with you and others. Practice grows vital new brain connections that strengthen and eventually form habits.
- Reflect on book and movie characters. When reading books or watching movies with your teen, discuss the characters’ thoughts and feelings. You might ask: “What do you notice about how they’re feeling?” and “What could they be thinking?” Leave plenty of quiet space for them to think of some ideas. Then, you might follow up asking how they might feel or think in a similar situation to show that differences will exist.
- Offer empathic listening (reflecting back feelings and thoughts) when your teen comes to you with a social problem. Resist fixing the problem or offering solutions but instead ask questions to prompt their thinking about how best to handle the situation and relationship. Be sure to ask, “What do you think they were feeling? Thinking? What could make things better? What might you do next time to feel better about the situation? Is there any harm that needs to be repaired between you and another peer?”
- When the whole family is together talking, try to predict one another’s feelings and see how accurate you can be. Playing board games or cards can be another time to predict or guess others’ feelings as they go through high and low points during the game.
Resist judging other teens who hurt your teen either with words or actions. Most often, you don’t know the whole story of the one who is lashing out, but you do know one thing for certain – that individual is hurting. First, listen to the feelings of your teen and express care. Then, relay that it’s impossible to know everything affecting the one lashing out. “People tend to say hurtful words when they are hurt themselves. Do you know why they might be hurting?” Prompt compassionate thinking. Then coach your teen how to respond in ways that do no harm to self or another. “Next time, could you move away or ask them to stop? Good. Try it out.”
Step 4. Support Your Teen’s Development and Success
At this point, you have been developing your teen’s skills in empathy, and you are allowing them to practice. Now, you can offer support when it’s needed by reteaching, monitoring, and coaching. Parents and those in a parenting role naturally offer support as they see their teen fumble with a situation in which they need help. This is no different.
By providing support, you are reinforcing their ability to take another’s perspective and begin to predict with some accuracy what another is thinking and feeling. This awareness helps to grow their relationships.
- Initially, your teen may need active support to encourage empathy. Use “Tell me…” statements and ask them to demonstrate empathy. You could say, “Tell me what you understand about how your sister is feeling.”
- Recognize effort by using “I notice” statements like: “I noticed how you saw they needed a ride and offered to drop them off. That was kind of you.”
- On days with extra challenges when you can see your teen is frustrated or feeling incapable, proactively remind your teen of their strength. In a gentle, non-public way, you could whisper, “Remember how you left your friend a note in their locker to help them feel better the other day? What could you do for your brother who is having a hard day today?”
Don’t fix problems between your teen and another. You could be taking away valuable learning for them. Instead ask them questions about how they can get their own needs met (“Could you take a break, maybe sit somewhere else for lunch for a day or two?”) and about how they can understand each other’s feelings and start to feel better.
Step 5. Recognize Effort and Quality to Foster Motivation
If your teen is working to grow their skills – even in small ways – it will be worth your while to recognize it. Your recognition can go a long way in promoting positive behaviors and expanding your teen’s empathy. Your recognition also promotes safe, secure, and nurturing relationships — a foundation for strong communication and a healthy relationship with you as they grow.
You can recognize your teen’s efforts with praise, high fives, and hugs. Praise is most effective when you name the specific behavior you want to see more of. For example, “You called and checked on your friend who was clearly upset. You are a good friend!”
Avoid bribes. A bribe is a promise for a behavior, while praise is special attention after the behavior. While bribes may work in the short term, praise grows lasting motivation for good behavior and effort. For example, instead of saying, “If you do the dishes, you may have a friend over after dinner” (which is a bribe), try recognizing the behavior after. “Thanks for doing the dishes again tonight. I know it’s your day for dishes, but you should know I really appreciate it!”
- Recognize when your teen identifies the thoughts or feelings of another. “We thought your friend might be feeling annoyed when they got quiet. You were correct.”
- Recognize small steps along the way. Each little discovery about another person’s thoughts and feelings is an exciting step forward. Remember that your recognition can work as a tool to promote more positive behaviors. Find small ways your teen is making an effort and let them know you see them.
- Build celebrations into your routine. For example, if your teen includes a new classmate in hanging out with their friend group, recognize their effort and kindness. Include hugs, high fives, and fist bumps in your ways to appreciate one another.
Engaging in these five steps is an investment that builds your skills as an effective parent to use on many other issues and builds important skills that will last a lifetime for your teen. Throughout this tool, there are opportunities for teens to become more self-aware, to deepen their social awareness, to exercise their self-management skills, to work on their relationship skills, and to practice responsible decision making.