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Developing Empathy in Adolescents

Developing Empathy in Adolescents

With the holidays in mind, which tends to cause people to say “Happy Thanksgiving,” “Merry Christmas,” “Happy Holidays” or “Happy New Year,” the question I am proposing is this: What happened to the rest of the year? Were we kind to each other, did we think of our fellow man, and did we lend him a helping hand? Pardon the reference to Jackie Deshannon’s 1967 song, but as adults, trainers, social workers, mental health specialists, parents, teachers or substance abuse counselors who work and interact with adolescents, we need to remember that adolescents represent the future. For those of us who still believe in peace and love and want to leave this world better than we found it, the answer lies in the adolescents we work with.


In our work with adolescents we teach and encourage prosocial skill sets, becoming autonomous, problem-solving techniques, appropriate ventilation of affect, becoming resilient, and alternatives to alcohol and drug use. The aforementioned is important and necessary; however the construct of developing and cultivating empathy is oftentimes unintentionally left out as an affective developments component which requires practice, nurturance, visual role-modeling, and teachable moments. 


Empathy has two main components, the first of which is affective/emotional or “I wonder what that feels like.” For example, this can be seen in adolescents who may be struggling with whether to intervene and assist a classmate who is being bullied. The second aspect of empathy is cognitive, such as “I’m thinking about what it’s like to be bullied.” The example is clear and has to do with whether adolescents will be empathic enough to intervene and assist the classmate. Empathy has additional component, an empowering element, which communicates to the adolescent “I am valued. I matter and people do care for me.” The empowering piece is not just limited to the intervening of the bullying episode, but also embraces the obvious teachable moment of handling the bullying incident in a nonviolent yet assertive manner. 


It is important to understand that for some adolescents their view of the world is that it is dangerous, and that no one cares about them. Adolescents may think, “I can’t afford to be empathic and show empathy. Why should I when no one has ever showed empathy towards me?” To reverse this thinking, as adults—whether professionals or parents—it is necessary to never forget the significance of modeling and its influence on the development of adolescents. Those adults who have access to the greatest amount of time spent with adolescents should always be mindful of the opportunity to model prosocial adaptive behaviors. 


Empathy is an important element because it affords the adolescent lifelong opportunities to care about and understand others. In addition, empathy also raises self-esteem in adolescents, particularly in the areas of confidence and competence. It allows these adolescents to understand that they are capable, and it allows us as professionals to understand that they are developing a sense of internal locus self-control.


The greatest and immediate influence on an adolescent’s behavior is the parents. Counselors working with families may want to ask parents the question, “How does your drinking and/or drug use impact your ability to nurture, teach, and model empathy for your children?” Empathy is expected during the holidays, but what about demonstrating empathy for the rest of the year? If adolescents are going to truly engage in empathic behavior, it starts with the family. For those of you who are familiar with my work, you know that I operate by this mantra: “The way you help a kid is by helping the family.”


Happy holidays.