If there is one thing we as a society could do to decrease the incidence of bullying, combat domestic violence, and ensure today’s children will become upstanding compassionate adults, it would be to teach and foster empathy in our children and in each other.
Examples of what happens when empathy is absent are all around us. You need only tune into the news to hear about another senseless act of violence or about one teen doing something terrible to another. Parents, civil, leaders, and mental health practitioners alike are looking for answers to the near-epidemic level of bullying behavior that seems to touch every child’s life in one way or another. Experts struggle to understand why even the most popular, likable, well-adjusted adolescents seem open to participating in behavior previously seen primarily in those who struggled to adhere to social norms. Regardless of the other factors that cause and contribute to these challenges, at the root of each one is a lack of empathy.
What is Empathy?
When you feel empathy for another person, you understand the feelings they are having. By putting yourself in their place, by feeling what they are feeling, you are able to react and respond in ways that are comforting, helpful, and supportive.
For example, you are waiting in line at the grocery store with several other people. The cashier is currently helping a young mother with two small children who are acting out and behaving badly. The woman is struggling to finish her purchase while also keeping track of and trying to placate her two toddlers. How you respond to this situation will vary greatly on the amount of empathy you feel for the woman. If you can imagine what it is like to be her in that moment, to feel the things she is feeling, you are more likely to be patient, understanding, and possibly even offer to help. However, if you cannot empathize with her, you are more likely to be judgmental, more likely to assume she isn’t a good mother since she cannot control her children, and perhaps even tap your foot or make a rude comment aimed at letting her know how much she is inconveniencing you.
The difference in these two reactions shows why empathy and lack of empathy in our teens can be so problematic. If you know how to have empathy for others, you are less likely to participate in behaviors that hurt people because you understand how much that behavior hurts the other person and don’t want to subject them to that pain.
While it is never too late to help someone learn to feel empathy towards others, it is a skill that is best learned in small steps from toddlers to teens and beyond. Most people are born with the capacity to feel empathy, but it isn’t something that happens on its own; it must be taught, modeled, and reinforced throughout a child’s life. If your child seems to be lacking in empathy for others, start by examining your own family dynamics. Children, including teens, learn what they live. If we want them to be caring, understanding, empathetic members of society, we must model that behavior in our own lives.
If you have any questions about how best to foster empathy in your teen, or if we can address any other concerns you may have, please give one of our counselors at Doorways a call. We would love to talk with you and answer any questions you may have.