“Walk a mile in my shoes”: Teaching Teens the Power of Empathy
Recently I was at my son’s school to watch a games day. I was lucky that morning to gain a rare insight into the desperate need for teens to learn empathy – unluckily, it was my own son at the centre of the debacle demanding an empathetic response.
Here’s what happened: Two teams were playing on the sports field. A handful of boys stood on the sideline watching. It didn’t take long before the insult slinging started, and the subject of one particular insult was my son. Luckily he didn’t hear. I’m not one to take notice of the behaviour of other’s children, but this time it was personal.
The hairs on the back of my neck stood up. I’ll admit my first impulse was to reprimand the child and his friends. However, coming from the belief that behind every action there is a positive intention, I was able to put myself into the shoes of those boys to have an empathic response. Rather than assume they had deliberately set out to intentionally hurt somebody, I thought they were probably just trying to be ‘cool’, and hadn’t given much thought to the potential hurt their actions could cause. Just because I was able to be empathic in that moment, doesn’t mean I was condoning their behavior. They made a mistake – that doesn’t make them ‘bad’ kids.
So, with a deep breath, I collected my thoughts, and decided what they really needed – indeed what the world needs these days – was to learn a powerful lesson in empathy and accountability.
Empathy: the antidote for bullying
Yes, empathy. It sounds a lot like “sympathy”, but empathy is quite different. Empathy is about feeling with other people. It’s the ability to understand and experience another’s feelings, and to respond in ways that help, not hinder.
The four attributes of building empathy, defined by scholar Theresa Wiseman, are:
- Being able to see the world as other’s see it;
- Staying out of judgement;
- Understanding another’s emotions and feelings; and
- Communicating that to the person.
Boil it down and empathy just means stepping into someone else’s shoes, and letting them know “I hear you” and “I feel you”.
Why did these boys need a lesson in empathy, and not a rap on the knuckles? If they’d felt with my son, in that moment; if they’d stepped into his shoes and paused to think about the potential impact of their statements, my bet is those insults would never have been hurled in his direction in the first place.
Think about it. Unless you’ve been lucky, it’s likely you’ve either been the subject of, or known someone who’s been the subject of, bullying or unkind words during the course of our lives. Perhaps you were the one dishing out the cruelty. Was the tormentor thinking about your feelings during their treatment? For the most part, I assume probably not. Had there been a generous dosage of empathy taught in the lead up to that act, or if it had been actively practised in that moment, the incident would never have arisen.
The decline of empathy and rise of bullying: is it any surprise?
Bullying today is rife. Thanks to social media, it now follows children from the schoolyard straight into their homes.
It is any surprise that research suggests children today are less empathic and more self-absorbed than they were a decade ago?
Children today are more stressed, and it’s directly impacting the part of their brain that affects self-regulation and executive functioning.
“[H]ighly stressed children may find it more difficult to effectively understand and regulate their own emotions, thus diminishing their capacity to develop empathy for others,” explain researchers Milkie and Warner in their study titled “Classroom learning environments and the mental health of first grade children,” published in the Journal of Health, Society & Behaviour in 2011.
Biology, not parenting, is also to blame
It’s not just us, or them, it may just be science.
A 2013 study out of the Netherlands, reported in the Wall Street Journal, found that “cognitive empathy,” or the mental ability to take others’ perspective, begins rising steadily in girls at age 13 – but in boys it doesn’t begin until age 15.
In fact, “adolescent males actually show a temporary decline, between ages 13 and 16, in a related skill – affective empathy, or the ability to recognize and respond to others’ feelings, according to the study…. Fortunately, the boys’ sensitivity recovers in the late teens. Girls’ affective empathy remains relatively high and stable through adolescence.”
Empathy is hard work, and requires being vulnerable
There is another reason why empathy is so scarce today: it’s hard work.
“Empathy”, social researcher Dr Brené Brown explains, is ultimately a vulnerable choice, and one that can be quite uncomfortable. “[B]ecause in order to connect with you I have to connect with something within myself that knows that feeling.”
Empathy and sympathy are often used interchangeably, but Brené explains that one drives connection, and the other, disconnection. She uses an example of a person stuck down a hole and two different responses to illustrate the difference between empathy and sympathy.
“I always think of empathy as this sacred space, when someone is in a deep hole and they shout from the bottom and say, ‘I’m stuck, it’s dark, I’m overwhelmed’. And then we look and we climb down and say ‘I know what it’s like down here, and you’re not alone’. Sympathy is [shouting out from the top] – ‘It’s bad huh? Want a sandwich?’”
Sympathy focuses on awareness.
Empathy focuses on experience.
Compassion focuses on action.
Teaching your child to walk into another’s shoes
Back to my story on the group of anonymous critics at my child’s school: While every motherly instinct in me was riled and ready to defend my child, instead I calmly walked over to the children and spoke to them empathically and without judging their behaviour. I was only able to do this coming from the belief that they were doing their best at that time to get what they needed – to be ‘cool’ and one of the ‘gang’. I explained that I was the mother of the child who they had just insulted, and asked them, “How do you think he would have felt if he’d heard you? If that had been you out there, hearing what you just said, how would you feel? In hindsight, do you think that your actions were an appropriate way to treat a fellow student?” I was holding them accountable for their actions.
In that moment, the look on their faces wasn’t just embarrassment, it was recognition that they had made a mistake. And I believe that lesson will have a stronger effect in the long-term than being punished and shamed for their behaviour.
“I believe empathy is the most essential quality of civilization.”
How to teach your child empathy
The good news is, empathy is a skill, and one that can be taught and learned.
The next time your child comes home with a story of unkindness – whether it be bullying, a selfish act in the playground, or so on – take the time to talk it through with them. What could your son or daughter have done to help the person in question?
If conversation is difficult, watch a movie together, or read a book that demonstrates a powerful example of empathy.
There are hundreds of books and movies that can help teach the art of empathy. Take a look at this link for some good suggestions for teens and tweens or check out the link on Good Reads for a comprehensive list for a wider audience.
Empathy will be enhanced naturally in your child the more they become in touch with their own feelings. But this can be challenging even for adults, let alone for a teen with raging hormones. Teens can struggle with going deeper than I’m ‘good’, ‘bad’ or the default ‘OK’. Identifying feelings is the first step towards emotional regulation, an essential ingredient towards empathy development.
Model how to articulate feelings, particularly difficult ones, such as frustration, jealousy, fear etc., in your own language, i.e. “When such and such said or did ……., I felt ……… etc.” The more you express how the actions of others make you feel, the more a child will learn to identify emotions within themselves and understand the feelings of those around them. As Joseph Chilton Pearce explains: “What we are teaches the child far more than what we say, so we must be what we want our children to become.”
Positively acknowledge when your teen displays empathy. But ultimately, recognise that it may take time and encouragement: Stepping into the empathy arena can be scary, particularly when you don’t have a solid grasp on your own feelings and/or identity, which is part of the reason why teens can struggle with empathy. However, it is a critical age to learn these lessons, so that they become part of their character and values. We need future generations who are not only able to identify what is wrong with the world, but who are committed to actually doing something about it.
As the opening line of the introductory video explains, “Empathy towards others, encourages hope… love and tolerance.”
Imagine how different the world could be today if everyone practiced empathy?
“Don’t criticise a man until you have walked a mile in his shoes.”