Caring. Compassionate. Considerate. When asked what qualities they most want to nurture in their teens, these are at the top of almost every parent’s list. We all want our children to know the value of caring for and giving to others. But from advertising to social media, today’s teens are bombarded with “me first” messages. Parents can combat the self-centered mindset with strategies to foster compassion and help teens feel good about giving. Here are our four top tips for raising a caring teen:
Encourage emotional awareness.
“The gateway to empathy is emotional literacy,” says Michele Borba, educational psychologist and author of UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World. Talking about feelings is how kids learn that emotions matter – their own and others’. Teens first need to know how to identify their feelings. Are they sad, mad, frustrated, hurt? Parents can help teens name and claim emotions by reflecting and asking questions: “It sounds like you’re upset. Are you angry?” The more aware teens are of their own emotions, the more they’ll pay attention to the emotions of others. Parents can ask teens how others might feel, too: “What do you think Jackson was feeling when he said that?” And make sure your teen knows that you have emotions, too. Teens value authenticity. When parents can be vulnerable, it builds trust and a closer connection.
Nurture multigenerational relationships.
Relationships across generations are beneficial for all ages, but they’re especially powerful for teaching teens about compassion. A few generations back, it was common for teens to help take care of younger siblings or senior relatives. These connections teach teens what it means to be responsible for others and often show them just how capable they really are. They also help teens develop compassion for those whose abilities differ from their own. When helping your teen build multigenerational relationships, start close to home. Is there a family member, friend, or neighbor who needs help? Can your teen earn extra money babysitting or running errands for seniors? Many cities have nonprofits that focus on multigenerational relationships. Teens can volunteer to teach technology or deliver meals to seniors, serve as a camp counselor, or tutor a younger student.
Explore different perspectives together.
Think about how you can help your teen develop awareness of cultural, ethnic, and religious plurality as well as differences in age, gender, ability, and economic background. \”Attitudes are caught not taught,\” says LuAnn Hoover, instructor of family studies and human services at Kansas State University. \”Nonverbal actions are picked up on. Kids don\’t attend to what adults say but to what they do. It\’s the saying, \’Actions speak louder than words.\’\” In other words, to embrace different perspectives, teens need to see you walking the talk. Make a project of exploring diverse perspectives and experiences together. Visit museums, watch movies, read books, try different cuisines, and attend local festivals. Emphasize the differences and connections in your own family and community, and help your teen see that they are a part of a big, diverse, interdependent world.
Rethink the chore chart.
Research shows that kids who do chores report better family relationships, but many parents say they’d rather do the chores themselves than have to nag their teens or fight over the definition of a clean room. One problem may be that, in many families, chores aren’t directly connected to caring for each other. Instead of randomly assigning tasks, try sitting down with your teen to rework the chore chart with a focus on how you can support each other. For example, if you work late on Wednesdays, would your teen be willing to get dinner on the table? If your teen has to wake up extra early for practice on Tuesdays and Thursdays, could those days be chore-free? When your teen pitches in, make sure you let them know how they’ve helped you: “Thanks for getting your brother ready for school. It gave me extra time to prepare for a big meeting and made my whole day go so much smoother. I really appreciate you.”
There’s nothing as rewarding as seeing your teen express empathy or lend a helping hand to someone in need. These four strategies help teens build rewarding relationships, develop responsibility, and, most importantly, find fulfillment in caring for others.