Developing Empathy in Youth
With our nation experiencing intense divisions ranging from politics to face masks to racial injustice, developing empathy in the next generation is more important than ever. Empathy is the ability to emotionally understand what other people feel, see things from their point of view, and imagine yourself in their place. Essentially, it is “walking a mile in someone else’s shoes.”
The Benefits of Empathy
The ability to accurately perceive another person’s feelings and understand another’s viewpoint offers a lot of benefits, including:
- Creates stronger relationships. People in your life feel more loved, supported and understood. You are able to connect with other people in more deep and meaningful ways, which is good for both your well-being and the well-being of the people in your life.
- Improves innovation. By understanding an unfamiliar point of view, you can stretch and test new perspectives and concepts. You are forcing your mind to continually learn which leads to new thoughts and ideas.
- Reduces stress. When we focus on the needs of others, we gain perspective on our own problems. We feel good when we help others.
- Motivates us to take action. When we recognize that other people are suffering, it spurs us to take action to fix the problem, which creates a better world for all of us.
- Resolves conflict and bridges differences. When you can understand a different perspective other than your own, you open your mind up to new ideas, are more cooperative, feel more united with others, and are more willing to work towards a solution that works for everyone.
- Improves your decision-making. When you can accurately read other people’s emotions, it gives you vital information to make a more-informed decision.
- Strengthens emotion regulation. Studies show that when we fully engage in empathy, we draw on skills to control our emotions, which also reduces our stress and helps us get along with others better.
Nature vs Nurture
Empathy is both a trait and a skill. While some people’s personalities are more naturally empathetic, research has shown that empathy can actually be taught. Our cultural, school, work and home environments and the values within them can build up or diminish our capacity to express empathy. There are steps every person can take that can improve their ability to empathize with others.
Ideas to Help Develop Empathy
There are lots of ways that parents can work to improve their teen’s empathy. Experts suggest these ideas:
- Explain your own emotions during significant events to your children. The first step in developing empathy is learning to accurately label feelings.
- Help your teen imagine what life is like for other people. You could discuss current events with your teen and ask them how they think the different people in the story might be feeling. You could also use movies or TV shows to discuss what characters might be thinking and feeling.
- Help teens discover what they have in common with other people. You could ask them if they relate to a particular character in a book or TV show and why. You could explore different cultures around the world and look for similarities rather than differences. Whenever possible, help them imagine what other people are going through. Use open-ended questions to encourage them to think about other’s perspectives.
- Teach them how to cope with negative emotions. Feeling someone else’s pain in unpleasant, so it’s natural to want to avoid it. Studies show that children who are better at regulating their negative emotions and finding constructive ways to handle their bad moods have more empathy.
- Role model active listening in your home. Active listening is when you try to understand the other person’s point of view without interrupting or thinking about what you want to say while the other person is talking. During conversations, focus your full attention and time on listening, then ask questions to see if you completely understand their thoughts. This does not mean that you have to agree with their viewpoint; you just need to accurately understand it.
- Teach them how to do a loving-kindness meditation. This practice has been scientifically proven to increase empathy. Refer to our previous blog to learn how to do a loving-kindness meditation.
Our current culture does not create empathy. It is up to parents, teachers, coaches, and other adults who interact with teens to instill this important value in the next generation. Today’s teenagers are tomorrow’s leaders, and our goal should be to create a group of leaders who are more willing to work together to solve problems and compromise to create a better world for all of us.