Emotion researchers refer to empathy as the ability to sense other people’s emotions, along with the capability to understand what someone is likely thinking or feeling, according to the Greater Good Science Center, based at the University of California, Berkeley. While we're all born with empathy, it's not unusual for a teen to seem as though he lacks it. The reason for this isn't because teens actually lack it, but because they are going through a process of self-discovery. What may seem like an unwillingness to engage, or care about, others is instead due to the fact that they often don't possess the self-confidence to engage others on an emotional level, according to licensed professional counselor Ugo Uche in a September 2012 Psychology Today article.
Understand that the teen brain is still developing. The prefrontal cortex -- the part of the brain responsible for empathy, social behaviors and the understanding of consequences -- is the last to develop. This part of brain doesn’t fully develop until a person’s mid-20s, notes counselor Uche. As a teen’s brain is developing, she becomes self-absorbed because she’s trying to determine her competencies, meet her own needs and relate to others, making it seem as though she lacks empathy. It is common for teens to not know how to interpret body language, facial expressions and tones of voice. Encourage your teen to participate in extracurricular activities to discover her strengths and talents, as this will likely build her self-esteem so she has the confidence to reach out to others.
Encourage self-awareness. If a teen seems to have no empathy, the Teenage Whisperer website suggests helping him reflect on his own negative experiences. When a teen assesses why he cares about what another person may do or say to him, he’ll gain a better understanding of how his actions and words can affect others. In addition to having your teen reflect on his own negative experiences with others, also have him recall experiences that were positive to him, as this will help him better understand what others feel as well.
Help your teen consider the consequences of her actions. When a teen shows a lack of empathy and consideration for others, she may do this because it’s easier for her not take responsibility for her actions. When helping a teen acknowledge the consequences of her own words and actions, have her think past the other person involved in a situation. Explain that she should consider how certain behaviors can affect a person’s family, friends, peers or community. For example, bullying does more than lower the self-esteem of a victim. It can make peers feel afraid, parents upset and a school to become an unsafe environment. By pointing out the long-term and far-reaching effects of her actions, you can help your teen develop empathy for others.
Teach by example. Show empathy toward your teen. Be considerate of her feelings and let her know that you understand the struggles she faces. You should also demonstrate empathy for others in your daily life and let your teen see you do this. Consider volunteering with your teen to humanize the victims of suffering, notes psychologist Gwen Dewar, on the Parenting Science website. For example, you might help victims of a natural disaster if you live close to an area where people experienced a hurricane and/or flooding. You might also volunteer at a soup kitchen or nursing home with your teen.
- If a teen has a cognitive disorder, like Asperger's syndrome, she may need professional behavioral therapy to develop empathy.
- If a teen who seems to lack empathy engages in violent or destructive behaviors, he may need professional counseling services. A pediatrician or school counselor can refer you to the appropriate professionals.
- Psychology Today: Promoting Empathy with Your Teen
- Teenage Whisperer: The Empathy Deficit: Why Don’t They Care?
- Teenage Whisperer: It’s All In the Shoes: Empathy, Victim Awareness & the Distance from Action to Impact
- Parenting Science: The Case for Teaching Empathy: Why We Shouldn’t Expect Empathy to ‘Just Emerge’
- Greater Good Science Center: What is Empathy
- Empowering Parents: Self-esteem and Anxiety in Teens: Plus 5 Ways to Start Real Conversations with Your Teen
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