How to teach empathy to troubled teens: No.1

Over the years I’ve produced dozens of worksheets for use with young people. Some work better than others.

But there are some things you can’t teach by just telling someone about it. Empathy is one of them.

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto\ejwhite

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto\ejwhite

When it comes to some of the more complex human qualities, there’s only one way to help teenagers develop them…

How to help troubled young people be more empathic…

When you show empathy, you teach empathy. That’s just the way life is. It’s the way people are. There are no short cuts.

If someone has never been empathised with, they’ll struggle to be empathic to others…

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Back to basics…

When children are born, they begin learning straight away. Not the kind of learning that comes with language and memory. This is different.

They learn by the constant repetition of interactions with care-givers. In fact, long before they learn language or develop cognition, infants are learning all sorts of things:

  • That crying gets a response
  • That those who respond do things to help (or hinder!)
  • That the distress they feel (hence the crying) isn’t terminal and can be made better
  • That they matter to someone

In amongst these profound and fundamental lessons, babies begin to learn empathy.

What is empathy?…

Empathy has many different definitions that encompass a broad range of emotional states, including:

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto/ArminStautBerlin

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto/A.S.Berlin

  • Caring for other people and having a desire to help them
  • Experiencing emotions that match another person’s emotions
  • Discerning what another person is thinking or feeling, and
  • Making less distinct the differences between the self and the other

In my view, empathy is the skill to get inside someone else’s experience and care for them.

Empathy is the skill to get inside someone else’s experience and care for them.

Poor empathy?…

Many troubled young people lack empathy. Their behaviour demonstrates this, sometimes at the expense of others’ welfare.

For example, they offend, they’re rude, they abuse, they seemingly have little regard for the feelings of others. Sound familiar?

So here’s the big question:

How much empathy have they experienced from others?…

Particularly from those who cared for them (or not!) very early in their lives?

You see, if young people were not empathised with during the very early months of life, they may well struggle to feel or show empathy to others – because they missed the foundational experience of being cared for empathically.

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There are a number of things we can do to make it easier for us to help young people with empathy deficits.  Adjusting our practice to embrace these things will get us ready for the most important aspect of our work…

If we want to teach empathy, we MUST empathise. We have to do it, if we are to teach it. That’s it!

A future post will examine in more detail how we can show empathy to the kids we work with…

Question: What are your thoughts on helping young people to learn empathy? What’s worked for you in building empathy with teenagers? 

Please leave a comment by clicking here.

Related posts…

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4 steps to empathy… (Click photo)

Crime & punishment 3 – “Give a damn.”

Reflection: why we need it… 

Engaging teens: 8 quick tips…

Engaging teens: 6 more tips…



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