How to help teens develop empathy

It’s easy to say that teens are selfish, mean, or they lack empathy. I think we could say the same for adults too! But teenagers are just starting to develop their empathetic skills. The experiences and information they take in on a daily basis helps shape their mindset and how they want to treat other people.

Empathy can also play an important role in helping students succeed in other areas of their lives. It allows them to work better on a team or group projects. And it helps create strong leaders with good management skills by seeing others’ perspectives.

There are two types of empathy: cognitive and affective.

Cognitive empathy is the ability to think about things from another person’s point of view.

Affective empathy is the ability to recognize and respond to others’ feelings appropriately.

When you think about your students, I’m sure you will see some have both, more have one or the other, and a few have neither.

Research shows cognitive empathy begins rising at the age of 13 in girls and 15 in boys. Affective empathy is relatively high and stable in girls, but declines in boys between 13 – 15.

Ideas to help develop empathy

These ideas below can be used in your classroom for your students, or at home with your own children. I know classroom time is precious, but even doing these simple activities a few times a year will make a difference.

News stories and Youtube videos

If you are connected on social media, I am sure you come across at least one story or video a week that is inspiring, uplifting and can create a great discussion around empathy. Show the video/story in class, talk about what happened and how people in the story may be feeling at certain times.

Here is one to get you started:

For this story, you can pose questions such as:

Why do you think it was important that his classmates got him the shoes?

What do you think mattered more to him – receiving the shoes, or knowing people care about him?

How do you think the classmates felt when he opened the boxes?

We live in a time when the news and social media is constantly in front of us. Why not use it for something good and help give our students some useful life skills?

TV shows, movies, and books

I grew up in the Boy Meets World, and Saved by the Bell era. Oh, and let’s not forget about Full House. All great shows displaying empathy. If there is a popular show, movie, or book that is a big buzz among your students, talk about it. Talk about the different characters and how they feel. Discuss things they could have done differently when treating each other.

Students come from so many different backgrounds that shows or movies are a great way to bring in scenarios everyone may be able to identify with.

Share your experiences

If you have a good bond and connection with your students, it will resonate with them when you can talk about times in your life that you’ve experienced things they may be going through.

For example, an argument with a friend and how you resolved it. Or a random act of kindness you did and how it made you and the other person feel.

Not only does this give them ideas and create a stronger sense of empathy, but it allows for your connection to become stronger, creating more trust, and also a better learning environment.

This idea may be best suited for a one to one conversation when a student comes to you with a problem, but it may also be appropriate for a bigger group depending on the culture in the classroom.

About the Author: Mike Marsteller is a youth motivational speaker helping teens and young adults be more resilient and find purpose in life. To learn more about Mr. Marsteller, visit his official website.

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