Can Teens Learn Empathy?

EmpathyAuthor, physicist, lecturer and the inspiration behind the movie, “The Theory of Everything”, Stephen Hawking, fears that human aggression may be the tragic flaw that could lead to our demise. When asked which human quality he would most like to magnify, Hawking chose empathy, because “it brings us together in a peaceful, loving state.” Empathy is the ability to understand the feelings of others, feel what they feel, and respond in helpful, compassionate ways. We are born with the capacity for empathetic behavior, but whether or not we mature into caring, understanding adults is determined by our experiences. Teens often get a reputation for being self centered, self absorbed, only caring about themselves. But Empathy doesn’t stop developing. We can nurture its growth throughout our lives. Teens are absolutely capable of empathetic behavior and may just be society’s best hope for preventing our demise!

A list of Six Habits of Highly Empathic People was developed by Roman Krznaric, Ph.D., founding faculty member of The School of Life in London and empathy advisor to organizations including Oxfam and the United Nations.

How Can We Use These Habits To Teach Empathy To Teens? 

Habit 1: Cultivate curiosity about strangers

Offer opportunities to talk with strangers. When you see strangers in new circumstances, talk to them. Talk to new people in front of your teen. Take your teen to the food pantry, homeless shelter, or different kinds of churches and meet people. Talk with people. Encourage your teen to do the same. When you see people who appear different, talk with your teen about the differences you can see but make the connection to the similarities or the common factors. Encourage observations about people. Encourage them to find the answers. Encourage them to get to know other people, other people in their own school, in their town or in the world.

Habit 2: Challenge prejudices and discover commonalities

Teens tend to be more open minded to differences. Find ways to challenge your own prejudices and encourage your teens open mindedness. Ask about their friends, but also ask about kids they used to know and you haven’t heard about in a long time. Maybe they are in a different social circle than your kid now, but ask and show interest in who they have become. After you have given your teen chances and opportunities to talk with strangers and have new experiences, talk about what they saw and what they felt. Show them the connection to their own lives. Show them that every person they meet in their lives has a story to tell. They have a life that led them down this path. Talk with your teens about their own path and the experiences that have shaped them. Talk with your teen about their own struggles and the struggles of the people they have met. Show them the common factors. The people they have met and talked with become more real to your teen. They now have a name. They have a story. Your teen can begin to truly “know” that person.

Habit 3: Try another person’s life

If we want our teens to “walk in another man’s shoes”, to truly experience someone else’s feelings, to know empathy, we need to give them the opportunities. As often as possible look for volunteer opportunities in your community. When you drop off items at Goodwill, take your teen along to help lift or carry. Have a conversation about how the person unloading with him is learning job skills. Have your teen carry in the box of canned goods to the community food drive. Strike up a conversation with the person collecting the cans. Have a conversation with your teen on the way home about the food drive, who organizes it, who benefits from it and why. Send them on the youth mission trip at your church or at their friend’s church. They may not want to go, but send them anyway. Take a family vacation that includes volunteering time. Or visit the Pack for  Purpose Website when traveling anywhere to find ways your teen can enjoy the family vacation to a warm beach, but also begin to connect with the people of that area and the struggles they may face.

Habit 4: Listen hard—and open up

Listening is not always easy to do when dealing with your teen. Slow down, put your computer or phone down. Stop making dinner. Look them in the eyes and listen. Listen until they are done talking. Really show that you care about whenever the topic is for the day. Expect the same from them. We often allow our teens to half way listen to us, understandable when we are barking orders or placing demands, but if we want teens to understand empathy, they must also learn to be good listeners. Have them put their phones down during dinner, or in the car. Tell them, ‘hey, we only have five minutes together today, while I run you to your friends put your phone down and have a conversation with me”. Ask them to give you an opinion on something. Run something by them, talk through a dilemma you had that day. Try to open up and share your feelings about something to show them that they can be a mutual, equal partner in conversation.

Habit 5: Inspire mass action and social change

This habit is fascinating when thought about in terms of how teens will impact the world someday. Teens are the first generation to have grown up with technology as a part of their everyday world. We talk often about putting phones down, turning off the computer, limiting, restricting and creating fear around social media and its impact on teens today. But what if we inspire teens to use the power of social media in new and different ways? What if we help them see the impact of a great social media campaign. What if we show teens that not only do they have a voice in their everyday lives, but they have a voice on a global level? Be willing to talk with your teen about the ways social media can be used for empathic causes. If you are taking a vacation and using Pack for A Purpose, have your teen share their experience on social media. If you volunteer at a homeless shelter, encourage your teen to share the experience so that their friends also gain some benefit. Show them mass media campaigns such as #likeagirl  ( and the possibilities of a message they care about being that easy to share. Teens have the potential to inspire action and change! Support their causes and ideas and show them the voice they have in this high tech world!

Habit 6: Develop an ambitious imagination

This habit of Highly Empathic People is described as not only having an ability to walk in the shoes of those suffering or those far away in remote parts of the world, but walking with our everyday enemies! If your teen daughter has an enemy at school, another kid she just can’t seem to stand or there has been hurt feelings over the years, teach her to think creatively about this enemy. Teach her to understand her enemy’s opinions. Encourage her to think about how the conflict felt to the other person. We must understand our enemies in order to find a resolution. Teens need to understand that empathy, being kind and compassionate and walking in another’s shoes, is not limited to those they choose. They must be willing to work toward understanding with all others. Sometimes finding empathy for those closest to us; moms, dads, friends, neighbors, is the hardest search of all.

Teens are passionate and emotional and are in the perfect position to learn and practice empathy!–destroy-us-all—calls-for-more-empathy-172950453.html

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