Children start to become aware of or may even experience negative behaviors like bullying, racism, and derogatory languages during their teen years (ages 13-19). Empathy can help them navigate these ethical challenges and make them become helpful, caring, and respectful members of the community.
Here are some ways you can help your teenager be more mindful of feelings, whether their own or those of others.
- Be sure that your teen knows that you value empathy among all others. Do not focus solely on his academic or extracurricular achievements; give him praise if he displays empathy towards someone else (i.e. defends a peer against bullying)
- Start conversations about forms of discrimination and stigmas. Don’t think that your 13-year-old is too young to understand concepts like “Islamaphobia” or “sexism;” if he is watching tv or films, you can already talk to him about how people are depicted based on their gender, race, religion, etc. Remember that the only way to disrupt stereotypes is to actively talk about them
- Model caring for others. If you talk a lot about empathy but don’t demonstrate it, your teen will notice. So back up your words by showing up to advocate with others and respond to community needs.
- Help your teen understand that the world doesn’t revolve around him. Helping around the house, doing chores, volunteering time, and practicing gratitude are all simple ways to reinforce this.
- Empathize with your child. When your teen comes to you with a problem, the first instinct is to either brush it off (“That’s not hard, what are you complaining about?”) or rush to fix it by yourself. Instead of doing these, tune in to your child’s emotional needs first. Say “That sounds hard. Tell me more about it,” then guide your child in coming up with solutions to the problem.
- Cultivate a diverse community and group of friends. Young people who form friendships and relationships with people across race, ability, sexual orientation, ethnicity and other identities, naturally consider their perspectives more often.
- Set high ethical standards. Examples of these include taking responsibility for commitments, making courageous decisions even when they are hard, and being kind and caring in the face of hatred.
- Give your teen time. Sometimes young people don’t appear to be empathetic because they are in fact, too overwhelmed by feelings, so they hide this by acting aloof or cold. Instead of insisting on a heart-to-heart talk right away, give your teen time and space to process his emotions, then discuss them once he is ready.
- Induce empathy. Actively ask your teen to take someone else’s perspective or to name how an action might make someone else feel.
- Stories matter. The types of books your teen reads can affect how they relate to others. Literary fiction (defined as a category of fiction that explores any facet of the human condition, and may involve social commentary) in particular has been proven by research to improves a reader’s capacity to understand what others are thinking and feeling. The characters in literary fiction disrupt reader expectations, undermining prejudices and stereotypes. They support and teach values about social behavior, such as the importance of understanding those who are different from ourselves. Examples of literary fiction that your teen can read include “Catcher in the Rye” by JD Salinger, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain, “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy by JRR Tolkien, and “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee.
As your teen develops empathy, don’t forget to acknowledge it. Point it out to them and thank them in the moment. Reward their attempts with words of encouragement. Doing the right thing by other people feels good and will give your child a sense of positive self-esteem that will go a long way to influencing his behavior.
Finding ways to promote healthy emotional development during this time period matters, especially since adolescence is important in shaping mental health into adulthood.
Written by Jac from MindNation