The Empathetic Teen: Raising Kids Who Care

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“I’d like you to close your eyes,” I often say at workshops that I facilitate across the country. “Now visualize the kind of adults you hope your children become.”

I add that I am not interested in them conjuring up logistical visions, for example, where they hope their children go to school or the kind of job they hope they get. Instead, I ask them to think about the character traits they hope their children have as adults.

I have probably done this exercise more than one hundred times over the past decade. Without fail, whether I’m in Saskatoon or Chicago, parents hope their children are caring, compassionate, and empathetic adults. We may not agree on much in this country right now, but raising caring children appears to be a consensus.

Rhetoric/Reality Gap

However, as the saying goes, “hope is not a plan.” Even before the current political season Harvard University’s Making Caring Common project highlighted a “rhetoric/reality gap” that children are quick to name. The report found, for instance, that nearly eighty percent of youth think their parents are more concerned with achievement and happiness than helping others. Youth were three times more likely to agree than disagree with the statement, “My parents are prouder if I get good grades in my classes than if I’m a caring community member in class and school.”

There is, of course, nothing wrong with achievement and happiness. Nonetheless, part of growing up is learning how to respond when these interests collide with the needs of others. Empathy is one of the core "pro-social skills" that enable young people to build community across differences, navigate ethical challenges, and put the collective good ahead of their own self-interest when it matters.

The political backdrop gives the task of raising empathetic children even greater urgency. The Southern Poverty Law Center recently released a report documenting 867 bias-related incidents in just the 10 days following the November election. Teachers describe an increase in the use of slurs and derogatory language between students.

We might be wise to take a deep breath, close our eyes, find our way back to that collective vision of raising caring and empathetic young people, and make a concrete plan to get there.

Empathy is not just about being nice; it matters for a number of important reasons:

  • Empathy catalyzes courage. A recent study found that early adolescents with higher levels of empathy were more likely to be a powerful bystander and stand up to a bully in defense of someone outside of their friend group.
  • Empathy makes us happy. People with empathy have stronger social relationships, are better equipped to collaborate, and thrive in team environments. All of these traits make us social animals quite happy.
  • Empathy helps us solve problems. Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes spurs compassionate problem solving that is central to democracy. How do we live together in better ways? How do we find creative solutions to collective problems?

We’ve written before about the development of empathy in young children, but what youth? How do we ensure that throughout adolescence our teens are widening their “circle of concern?”

Window of opportunity

We used to think that empathy was fully formed in childhood. But as our understanding of the adolescent brain has grown, we now know that social cognition and the complex set of skills that enable young people to consider things from another perspective, feel concern for others, and put themselves in someone else’s shoes continue to grow and develop throughout the teen years.

Empathy is not, of course, something that you learn in a single lesson. It also isn’t a single skill or single circuit in the brain. For example, so-called “cognitive empathy,” or the ability to consider something from someone else’s perspective, is seated in the prefrontal cortex. One study found that while boys tend to start the growth spurt a bit later than girls, cognitive empathy actually begins rising in adolescence. This helps explain why you can enjoy quite sophisticated conversations with young people who are willing to consider various viewpoints and explore their own perspective as well.

On the other hand, “affective empathy,” or the ability to identify and respond to someone else’s feelings, is seated in the limbic brain, the brain’s emotional center. While the foundation of affective empathy is built in early childhood, there are changes during adolescence as well. According to the same study, the most marked change is in young men, who experience a temporary decline in affective empathy between the ages of thirteen and sixteen. Of course teasing out the biological and environmental reasons for this decline is complicated and contested. While changing levels of testosterone may play a role, there is no doubt that disrupting gender stereotypes in early childhood and adolescence are an important component of helping strengthen empathy in all children.

Mind the gaps

Parents need to be mindful of the ways that “empathy gaps” limit our capacity to recognize and respond to the emotions of others. These gaps are especially acute for people and groups of people we perceive as different from ourselves and are shaped in powerful, and often subconscious ways, by racial and class differences. The “racial empathy gap” was coined after a series of studies found evidence that white people assume that black people feel less pain than white people do. Inducing empathy, or asking people to put themselves in someone else’s shoes, does appear to lessen the impact though does not eliminate the gap. This effect has been demonstrated in children as young as seven years old. Gone unnamed and unchallenged, the racial empathy gap has cascading ramifications, from highly personal interactions in the halls of a high school to systemic disparities in healthcare and the criminal justice system. Too often, white parents especially, ignore the ways that race, culture, religion, and other categories of difference shape empathetic responses. By ignoring the ways that racism takes root in practices of caring, white parents lose the opportunity to disrupt it.

Here are some tips on cultivating empathy in young people.

  • Be sure that you teens know that you value empathy. Be sure to tell your teen that you value caring and empathy. Back up these words by recognizing when your teen is empathetic and considers the feelings of others or acts courageously for someone else.
  • Actively disrupt stereotypes. Islamophobia, racism, sexism, transphobia, and homophobia don't go away by not talking about them. Practice counteracting stereotypes through games, conversation, movies, books, and relationship building.
  • Watch Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie's TED Talk: Talk about how to go beyond a Single Story about groups of people.
  • Set high ethical standards. Taking responsibility for commitments, making courageous decisions even when they are hard, being kind and caring in the face of hatred, or doing the right thing even at a cost is all part of setting high ethical standards.
  • Empathize with your child. Tune in to your child's emotional needs. This doesn't mean rushing in to fix it. Instead try, "That sounds hard. Tell me more about it." Watch Brene Brown's video short on empathy for some ideas.
  • Model caring for others. If you talk a lot about empathy but don’t demonstrate it, your teen will notice. 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 them. Helping around the house, doing chores, volunteering time, and practicing gratitude are all simple ways to reinforce this.
  • Be an emotion coach. Emotion coaching can help your child identify their own feelings and regulate their emotions.
  • Use current events to start conversations. If you think your teens aren’t paying attention, you are likely wrong. Talk about the words and actions of favorite TV characters, politicians, and pundits.
  • Give your teen time. Sometimes young people don’t appear to be empathetic because they are in fact, too overwhelmed by feelings. Young people can hide this by acting aloof or cold. Give your teen time and space to respond.
  • Induce empathy. Actively ask your teen to take someone else’s perspective or to name how an action might make someone else feel.
  • Name differences, name similarities. Ignoring race, ability, or class simply gives stereotypes and prejudice more power. Talk about similarities and shared values without erasing differences.
  • Cultivate a diverse community and group of friends. Relationships matter. Young people who form friendships and relationships with people across race, ability, sexual orientation, ethnicity and other identities, naturally consider their perspectives more often.
  • Stories matter. Keep literary fiction on the bookshelf, it helps young people understand and identify with other perspectives. Encourage young people to tell their stories and listen to others, watch documentaries, and read read read.

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