Does Your Teen Lack Empathy?

li-teen-boy-620-cpisI’ve been working with a fifteen year old male for the past few months who has been diagnosed with Attention Deficit/Hyper Activity Disorder (ADHD) and Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD).

He was referred to me because his mother was frustrated with his behavior. He was argumentative, physically aggressive, disobeyed rules and punching holes in his bedroom walls.

After a few sessions his physical aggression and property damage pretty much stopped, but he still had major problems following home and school rules and basically disobeyed his mother repeatedly, although not as violently as before.

His mother, was pleased about the decrease in aggression, but she was still frustrated with the fact that she had to repeatedly ask him to do his chores and often he would blatantly refuse to do anything until he was ready, which was usually never or until his mother was red in the face and hoarse from yelling at him.

It was during an exercise I was doing with him about the impact of his behavior on others, that I realized that part of his problem, besides his diagnoses of ADHD and ODD, is that he lacks empathy. He doesn’t really understand how his behavior impacts other people, especially his family. I had him list certain incidents where he got in trouble, and he wrote things like, “I didn’t do my chores”, “I stayed out past my curfew” and “I didn’t wake up on time for school”. When I then asked him to tell me how his behavior impacted his mother, his sister and/or his father, he replied “I don’t think it did” despite the fact that all those things had everyone in his family upset with him.

It became clear to me that in order to help change his disruptive behavior, I had to also teach him how to be empathetic.

Many people in the scientific community believe that teens lack the ability to be empathetic because the part of the brain that allows us to have empathy for others, the medial prefrontal cortex, is not fully activity in the teenage brain. Adults are much better at analyzing how their decisions will affect themselves as well as other people, which explains why some teens (and adults with empathy problems) make some very stupid decisions with little thought to how their decision will impact other people.

Research also shows that teenagers tend to have a harder time with, and take longer to recognize emotions expressed on other peoples faces.

Developmentally, adolescence are at a stage where things are largely about them, they are very self-centered and so empathy isn’t their strong suit. Yet, I know there are many empathetic teens, I see and work with them everyday. It is true that many teens have a hard time empathizing and the internet probably isn’t helping, as we can go to YouTube or a number of other sites and see people getting beat up, falling, or in a number of other uncomfortable, embarrassing situations, and view it as entertainment, instead of empathizing with the person. It’s possible that being exposed to those videos and images overtime, deadens our ability to be empathetic by desensitizing our neural circuits and this may spill out from the virtual world to real life.

The good news is, empathy can and should be taught. The younger, the better, but it’s never too late

Some Ways You Can Teach Empathy To Your Child

  • Develop a good relationship with your child that nurtures their emotions. Research shows that children who have parents that help them cope with their negative emotions in loving, solution-oriented ways, are more likely to show concern for other children.
  • Treat your child as an individual with a mind of his or her own. Talk with them about emotional and mental states and teach them how their thoughts influence their feelings and behaviors.
  • Model healthy emotional behavior and empathy towards others. This is a very effective way to teach your child empathy and take the time to check in with their feelings and show empathy during everyday life, such as while watching television together.
  • Give them the language to express themselves appropriately by teaching them how to use “I Statements”, such as “I felt angry when the other driver cut me off”.  You can also teach them reflective listening skills which will help them label their feelings. You can model this by asking questions like  “You seem down today, did something happen at practice?” This will help your child recognize their feelings as well as help them learn how to express them.
  • Help them discover what they have in common with other children. People tend to be more empathetic toward people they feel are similar to them, which is one reason whenever I start a new support group, the first activity I do is a game called, “I Have Something In Common With…”. The game basically elicits empathy for others in the group through showing that no matter how different they may seem from each other, they all have somethings in common with each other.

Teaching your child how to be empathetic, is like turning their mirrors into windows, where they can look out beyond themselves and put themselves in other  peoples positions  It’s also good to give your children opportunities to show empathy and to give through volunteering, helping a neighbor, etc. Children who are empathetic tend to develop into better adjusted adults with less interpersonal problems than children who aren’t empathetic, and tend to have multiple issues relating to other people, including bullying, antisocial traits and cruelty to animals.

6 thoughts on “Does Your Teen Lack Empathy?

    1. Let’s see if I can summarize it: basically you have the kids stand in a circle on “spots” which could be anything (I sometimes use paper plates). There is one less spot than there are people so someone will be in the middle (I usually play and start off in the middle). The basic rules are, the person in the middle of the game will say “You have something in common with me if…” and if you have that thing in common with the person in the middle, you have to move from your spot, but you can’t move to the immediate spot to your left or to your right and if you are caught without a spot, then you are in the middle and have to try to get out of being in the middle by saying “You have something in common with me if…”. The game usually starts off very simple with people saying things they can see, such as “If you have black hair”, “If you have on blue jeans”, etc. and I will let that go for a few rounds, but than I direct it a little deeper by saying something like, “Okay, now we are only talking about school related topics” or “Family” or “Things you can’t see”. The goal is to go “deeper” and eventually you’ll get things like, “You have something i common with me if your parents are divorced” or “You have something in common with me if you’ve ever been bullied”. The goal is to get them to realize that they have things in common with other people, especially when they feel so alone and isolated as if no one else has ever been through the things they have. I hope this was a good explanation. It’s a fun game.

      1. that is such a good idea. i think i’ll use it as a get to know you game for kiddos and friends! thank you for taking the time to tell me about it. 🙂 –kris

  1. Great post! So true. I love this imagery: “Teaching your child how to be empathetic, is like turning their mirrors into windows”. For me, it’s often helpful to show them the needs of others.

    1. Thank you for taking the time to read and respond. It’s funny how some things just hit us. I was having a hard time putting my finger on why this client was being so difficult and when it hit me that he lacked empathy and I needed to help him learn how to be empathetic, it truly opened up so many doors in our work together.

  2. Thank you for this post. I have a 15 year old daughter who I just discovered is partially involved in bullying a friend, and I’m not sure how to teach her the empathy to understand her role in it! My daughter is a high anxiety with little confidence so I’m sure she is glad it’s not her being “targeted” – which so disappoints me!! She is also a kid who never opens up with us, so our “discussions” are always one sided. I’m feeling double the guilt and empathy that she doesn’t feel! Any more tips you have would be appreciated!

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