Empathy. Walking in the Shoes of Others

In the article, ‘How to Help Teenagers Develop Empathy’ the authors direct some pertinent questions to parents:

  • Ever feel like your teenager has little or no compassion for others?
  • Do they find it hard to see things from another person’s point of view?
  • Do you struggle to get your adolescent son or daughter to engage in activities that don’t directly benefit them in some way?

Depending on how you answer these questions it is widely accepted that some teens have an ‘empathy deficit.’ While this can make a teen seem selfish or self-centred, it’s important to note that this ‘empathy gap’ is influenced by many factors, including how the adolescent brain develops during this period.

Research shows that an adolescent ’s brain works differently to an adult’s brain. Teens use different parts of the brain to identify emotions, which can lead to difficulties interpreting body language, facial expression and tone of voice.

Types of empathy:

  • ‘Affective empathy’ is the term used to describe the sensations and emotions we feel in response to another person’s emotions. This may include mirroring what the person is feeling or providing a sympathetic response. For girls, affective empathy tends to remain at a high, steady level throughout adolescence. For boys, studies suggest a temporary decline in affective empathy between the ages of 13 and 16, possibly due to a surge of testosterone in early puberty. 
  • ‘Cognitive empathy’ development in teens is the ability to consider situations from another person’s point of view. For girls, cognitive empathy begins rising from the age of 13, while for boys, cognitive empathy has a more delayed start at 15.

In her article Seven Ways to Foster Empathy in Kids Suttie identifies the ‘selfie’ as the ubiquitous symbol of narcissism – a significant factor in young people thinking they are the centre of the universe ‘reflecting a decreased focus on others and a lack of empathy.’

This lack of empathy has also been linked to cyberbullying. Often teens will bully, intentionally or unintentionally, because they have trouble understanding the impact of their actions on others’ welfare or relating emotionally to the victim. This makes it especially important that they learn to empathise with peers who are ‘different’ to them.

As empathy is learned and can be nurtured Common Sense Media has recommended movies for young children through to teens that inspire empathy. ‘These movies help kids learn the value of putting themselves in someone else’s shoes to understand the feelings and the perspective of others. These are excellent examples of empathy because they show how the character strength is intrinsic to the story or is repeated several times in the actions of a lead character, and empathy “wins” over character flaws such as focusing only on one’s own needs’.

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