Help your teenager develop empathy

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.

What is empathy?

Empathy is the ability to understand the emotions of others. Empathy helps us understand how others are feeling, what their motivations are, and what their perspective might be. Encouraging your child to consider these things when interacting with others might help them understand why engaging in bullying behaviour is hurtful to others.

Why it's important in changing bullying behaviour

Often, people bully or unintentionally hurt others because they lack the 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 cause hurt. 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.

Missing empathy: More common than you think

Teenagers often cop a bad wrap; they're labelled moody, touchy and difficult to get along with. But according to studies, the region of the brain associated with empathy and guilt is underused by teenagers.

The study asked teenagers and adults how they would react to certain situations. The results show that adults are much more considered about how their actions will affect not only themselves but those around them.

How to help your teenager develop empathy

Developing empathy in teenagers is vital as it encourages them to reflect, observe and think about their behaviour. Help them to notice and name feelings and communicate them to others appropriately.

  • Empathy loves company. Set a good example for your teen by exercising your own displays of empathy in day to day life. Talk about feelings in real-life situations or examples on television and show your empathetic side to them, so they feel encouraged.

  • 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.

  • Switch off to switch on. 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.

  • Flip the script to understand the other person's point of view. If they have bullied, ask them what they think the person they bullied 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 if they're engaging in behaviour that could be bullying. By working out what their underlying need is, you can reflect this to them and discuss their process.

  • Praise your teens when you see them behaving in an empathic manner. Never underestimate the importance of positive feedback to teens. Never underestimate the importance of positive feedback to teens.

Other skills your teenager may need to develop

Empathy is an essential skill for avoiding bullying. However, a lack of empathy isn’t the only reason people bully. Consider how capable your teenager is at the following skills: 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 boost of positive self-esteem that will go a long way to improving their behaviour.

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