Empathy Lessons for Teenagers

By Rosenya Faith
Help your teen think about others' perspectives by volunteering his time.
Help your teen think about others' perspectives by volunteering his time.

It’s easy for teens to get wrapped up in their own lives and emotions. It's natural for teens to live in the moment of their emotions and to move from one experience to another without reflecting how their actions effect themselves, let alone others. Sometimes an empathy deficit is caused by an autism spectrum disorder, which makes it difficult to read other people's social cues, or a psychological issue such as past injuries; if this is the case, seek professional assistance. The ability to empathize with others is an important social skill, without which it can be difficult to relate to others. While your teen's emotional IQ is not likely to rise to the level it will when he's past adolescence, helping your teen learn about empathy through a variety of engaging activities can also give you the opportunity to spend a little one-on-one time together.

Written Exploration

Become your teen’s favorite penpal to help him learn about empathy. If your teen has difficulties talking about how he feels with you, encourage him to express himself in writing. Have him sit down and write to you about something emotional that's going on in his life. Ask your teen to express himself as much as he can, and then have him email or hand you the letter when he's finished. Read the letter privately and then respond, using your own empathy skills. Continue this written dialogue to help your teen continue to explore his own emotions -- an important step in the ability to empathize with others’ emotions.

Empathy Collage

Give your teen a visual empathy reminder -- that also happens to add a little color to his bedroom wall. Spend a little time together rummaging through the pages of newspapers, magazines and brochures to find pictures that depict individuals showing empathy. He can cut out pictures of a father consoling a child as he bandages a scraped up knee, a friend hugging a teary-eyed child, family member's holding hands in the hospital or a mother consoling a broken-hearted teen. Arrange the photos in an eclectic manner on a large sheet of poster board and slide into a picture frame. Alternatively, the collage could go in his closet if he is shy about friends seeing it. To highlight the difference between empathetic and non-empathetic behavior have your teen look for images that demonstrate both.

Role Play

Help your teen understand what it feels like to walk in someone else’s shoes by role playing a variety of scenarios that would call for an empathetic response. Start by thinking of fictitious issues that the two of you can role play, such as a friend who lost something small, such as his homework, or something large, such as a family heirloom ring from her great grandmother. Once you've had a little practice together, use the role playing as an opportunity to sort through issues with which she's currently struggling. If he's currently quarreling with a friend, angry with a teacher or irritated with a sibling, role play through the issues together, giving him the opportunity to take on the role of the other person, consider their actions and see the problem from another's perspective. These role play exercises will help him sort through difficulties and empathize with others.

Service Activities

Encourage your teen to look at life from another's perspective and give him the opportunity to empathize with others in need by helping him get involved in volunteer and community service projects. Take him out of his comfort zone to volunteer at a soup kitchen or work special needs students in his school. You can lead by example and sign up to volunteer together, delivering meals to homebound community members or spending time visiting in a long-term care facility or hospital ward. Encourage your teen to rummage through his closet for items to donate to others in need or help him organize a toy drive for underprivileged children during the holiday season.

About the Author

Rosenya Faith has been working with children since the age of 16 as a swimming instructor and dance instructor. For more than 14 years she has worked as a recreation and skill development leader, an early childhood educator and a teaching assistant, working in elementary schools and with special needs children between 4 and 11 years of age.