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Developing Empathy in Teens

by Erin Schreiner

To onlookers, teens often appear self-involved, worried about their own needs and feelings and ignorant to the needs and feelings of others. While teens might convey this image, they do feel empathy. According to an article at PsychologyToday.com, empathy is a natural ability that everyone possesses from birth. Humans have this ability, he continues, because they are social creatures and are biologically intended to live in groups. If your teen appears to lack empathy entirely, she likely just needs some help in honing this vital skill.

Discuss Feelings

Though your hard-shelled teen might seem to be emotionless, many emotions are probably surging through her. Your teen’s emotion-free appearance may stem from her not knowing how to handle such complex feelings. Instead of leaving her to figure it out for herself, engage her in discussions about emotions. The next time something emotion-inducing takes place, have a conversation with your teen about what you are feeling and encourage her to reciprocate. By talking about thoughts and feelings, you can help your teen become more in tune with her emotions and the emotions of others.

Write it Out

Some teens struggle when asked to talk about their emotions, but thrive when given the opportunity to write about them, according to a web page on the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign website. If your teen seems unwilling to open up verbally, give her a pen and paper. Ask her to write a letter to you about something she is struggling with. Challenge her to provide details about her emotions. Once she finishes, take the letter, read it and respond in writing. Keep this written communication going as a means by which to explore emotion and improve your child’s ability to empathize with others.

Role-play

Allowing your teen to temporarily step into someone else’s shoes can be valuable. If your teen shares information about a feud she is having with a schoolmate or a struggle she is experiencing with a teacher, engage her in role-play. Allow her to take on the role of the peer or adult with whom she is having a disagreement while you take on her role. Act out an exchange between these two individuals. As you move through the scene, pause periodically and ask your teen to consider why the person she is depicting is acting as he is. By pausing and thinking about these things, your teen can increase her ability to empathize with this foe.

Explore Social Media

To many parents, many of whom grew before the advent of social media, those sites seem a poor excuse for actual interaction. According to a study conducted by the World Vision 30 Hour Famine initiative, social media might actually improve empathy. This study, conducted in January of 2012, found that 55 percent of polled teens said that social media sites have made them more aware of the needs of others. Given these teen’s accounts of the usefulness of these sites, spending time on them could potentially give your teen insight into the thoughts and feelings of others and, in doing so, make her more empathetic.

About the Author

Erin Schreiner is a freelance writer and teacher who holds a bachelor's degree from Bowling Green State University. She has been actively freelancing since 2008. Schreiner previously worked for a London-based freelance firm. Her work appears on eHow, Trails.com and RedEnvelope. She currently teaches writing to middle school students in Ohio and works on her writing craft regularly.

Photo Credits

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