The teen years can be turbulent. Parents often report that at the onset of adolescence, their kids undergo a sudden shift in attitudes and behavior. Even kind, thoughtful kids may become demanding, insensitive, and selfish at times. Parents can take heart in the understanding that teenage brains are still developing the foundations of empathy and require guidance and patience to fully develop.

Empathy is the ability to identify with and understand the emotions of others. When we see someone in pain, we can imagine their pain in a vivid, personal way, and we feel compassion. Psychologists Daniel Goleman and Paul Ekman have identified three types of empathy: cognitive, emotional, and compassionate.

Each of these types of empathy is foundational to teens’ self-control, problem-solving skills, and overall social and emotional well-being.

Researchers once believed that cognitive and emotional empathy formed in childhood. More recent research, however, confirms that empathy skills are still developing during the teen years. Cognitive empathy begins rising in girls at about age 13, but boys don’t demonstrate an increase until around age 15. Boys also undergo a temporary drop in emotional empathy between the ages of 13 and 16. And regardless of gender, all teens are doing the hard work of individuation – developing a distinct, individual identity – which can temporarily lead to more self-focused attitudes and behavior. In short, teens are still figuring empathy out, and are bound to make a few mistakes.

When dealing with teenage turbulence, parents can encourage empathy with strategies that both accept kids where they are and help them establish healthy perspectives. Here are five of our favorite empathy amplifiers:

Talk about feelings. It sounds simple, but just reminding teens that feelings matter can help them develop greater empathy. This means talking about their feelings, your feelings, and the feelings of others. Personal experiences as well as current events offer plenty of opportunities for perspective-taking. Ask teens what they notice about others’ body language, tone of voice, and behavior. This encourages them to consider the feelings of others and develop a rich emotional vocabulary.

Describe different points of view. Ask your teen what they think other people are feeling in different situations. It helps to start the conversation when they’re observers rather than participants so they’re less emotionally involved; this builds their capacity to understand another’s perspective when they’re in the middle of a conflict.

Identify unmet needs. Most negative behavior, including bullying, is an attempt to get needs met. When teens understand different points of view, they can take a step back and ask themselves, “if this person is behaving in this way, what needs are they trying to meet?” In time, teens can become more adept at understanding their own needs and expressing them in words rather than acting out.

Model connection and compassion. As always, teens are paying attention to the example set by their parents. Simple gestures, like putting away your phone when having a conversation, asking genuinely curious questions when talking to your teen’s friends, lending a hand in your community, and doing random acts of kindness say a lot about the importance of empathy.

Volunteer together. Family volunteering has many benefits, one of which is helping teens develop empathy. Volunteering is an opportunity for teens to experience differences in perspectives and life experience, as well as to find common ground and become part of a team. It also introduces them to the empowering, heartwarming emotions we experience when helping others.

When confronted with teenage moodiness, eye-rolling, or door-slamming, parents sometimes just have to take a deep breath and remember it’s all a part of normal neurological development. With a little patience and the above empathy-building strategies, we can steer teens towards kindness and compassion and trust that they will continue to grow in their ability to express and extend empathy. 

Originally published at Personalexcellence.org.

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