Yshai Boussi L.P. C., Adolescent and Couples Therapist, joined us with great tips on how to foster empathy in our teens. You'll find more great articles about parenting teenagers on Yshai's blog.
1. Pay attention to the details. Get your teen to have more empathy for your point of view by paying attention to the details of their life. Don't just focus on the big issues. Ask her about her friends, the music she's listening to, current movies/TV shows/video games, and other topics. Try to remember as much as you can. Find a way to stay curious and interested. Teens can sniff out judgment from miles away so stay away from that. At least initially, she doesn't really care what you think, so don't tell her unless she asks or unless your opinion is supportive of her own. This may feel boring to you at times, but it's a very important way to get your teen to care more about what you think and how you feel.
2. Require your child to acknowledge and/or consider how his negative behavior impacts others. When your child makes a mistake or breaks a rule, include as a part of his consequence some type of acknowledgment as to the impact his behavior may have had on others and on you. This could be done in the form of a written assignment, but face to face is always ideal. If you or others have a strong emotional reaction, express it in a way that is controlled but honest. As long as your emotions are genuine and not guilt driven, your child will benefit from seeing and hearing about the feelings that his behaviors have caused to those he loves.
3. Participate in meaningful acts of volunteering and helping others. Your teen sees the homeless people on the off ramps just like you do. They hear the stories of military families as well, people losing their homes, and about children who are abused and hurt. The problem for a lot of teens is that their experience with others who struggle is very distant and removed from their own life. They read headlines and see people on the street from inside their car, but they lack direct three dimensional experience with these people and issues. As parents of teens, we must find opportunities for our teens to have meaningful and direct experience with others who are different from them and who have struggles that they don't have.
4. Make a clear distinction between empathizing and excusing. Personal responsibility and accountability for their actions is an essential trait that your teen must learn. However, if your teen doesn't feel like you have made a sincere effort to try and really get them, you may get the behavior you're looking for but you'll lose your kid. For example, understanding that your teen has been under a lot of stress and is struggling with low self-esteem, in no way excuses their poor grades or lack of judgment. But understanding and addressing these issues will be essential if you're going to help them improve their grades and their judgment in the future.
5. Empathize with people that are different, expect the same from your teen. Don't let mean spirited, judging comment slide. If you hear your teen referring to other's in blatantly rude or disrespectful ways it's important to point out that it's not ok. In these cases, it's also helpful to point out an alternative explanation for these behaviors. For example, if your teen describes a peer simply as a "tool", you could help your teen understand that, maybe that kid has a hard time making friends or maybe he hasn't had the same kind of support and opportunities that your teen's had. Don't be long winded, keep it short and to the point.
6. Build on the undeniable empathy that is already there. If she's not showing it towards you it's not because it doesn't exist. There are likely many teachers, parents and peers that could testify to her compassion and thoughtfulness. When you feel like this trait seems to disappear around you, point it out and ask your child about it. You might say something like, "I know you're a thoughtful and compassionate person which is why I don't get the way you talk to me sometimes. I feel sad and hurt when you get like that."
7. Be honest with yourself. How much compassion and understanding are you showing your partner, your teen and yourself? Even though your child's friends are very important to them, you as their parent still hold the greatest influence. How often do you tell your child you love him? How often do you give him a hug, just because? Do you give adequate attention to his successes and disappointments? Do you model empathy on a day to day level such as commenting on a homeless person or a grumpy store clerk with compassion for their circumstance instead of judgment and condescension? None of us are perfect in this area, but our teens expect us to practice what we preach and be honest when we don't.