Help your teenager develop empathy

adult and child talking seriously
adult and child talking seriously

adult and child talking seriously

Empathy for the feelings and needs of others is an important skill that we all need to develop. If your child is bullying others, it might be because they haven’t learnt about or need more practise in using empathy. 

The importance of empathy in changing bullying behaviour

Often people bully or unintentionally hurt others because they lack an ability to think about and understand the impact of their actions and words on others. Without empathy and respect for others, it’s easy to act in ways that hurt other people. There are many ways your teenager can get what they need without having a negative impact on others, and it’s important to help them learn the skills to do this.

How to help your teenager develop empathy

You can help your teenager develop empathy by teaching them to reflect, observe and think about their own behaviour. Help them to notice and name feelings and communicate them to others appropriately. 

  • Talk often about feelings in life. Talk about feelings in real-life situations, or examples on television.
  • Ask what they notice. What do they believe people are feeling, based on their non-verbal communication - facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice? Labelling these feelings will help them think about and understand others.
  • Be a positive role model for connecting with people. Give full attention to your child, and other people around you often. Turn off the TV or put down devices, and focus your full attention on the person you’re with. Encourage your teenager to do the same when talking to you.
  • Help them understand the other person’s point of view. Ask them what they think the subject of their behaviour might be thinking, or how they might see the situation. Ask them what the other person might want to happen and why.
  • Encourage them to come up with ways everyone can get what they need. Get them to come up with different and interesting ways they could go about it. Help them choose options that work best for everyone and put them into practice.
  • Ask them what they’re trying to achieve when they’re engaging in behaviour that could be bullying. Try and work out what their underlying need is, and reflect this back to them.

Other skills your teenager may need to develop

Empathy is an important skill for avoiding bullying. But a lack of empathy isn’t the only reason people bully. Consider how capable your teenager is at the following skills:

ReachOut.com has some helpful information that you could encourage your child to read:

As your child develops empathy, acknowledge it. Point it out to them and thank them in the moment. Reward their attempts with words of encouragement. Doing the right thing by other people feels good and will give your child a sense of positive self-esteem that will go a long way to changing their behaviour.

Page last review by ReachOut Parents Clinical Advisory Group on