The Importance of Empathy

As I prepare for a presentation next week about empathy, I am hyper-aware of the importance of empathy in all of our lives, especially for parents of teens. I define empathy as the ability to put yourself in another’s shoes, and imagine what it is like to be them. Sounds simple, but it’s not always so. To be empathic and really put yourself in another’s shoes requires you to be vulnerable, which is not comfortable for many of us. We fear being overwhelmed by our feelings if we relate too closely, as well as the loss of our objectivity. Both are possible, but usually less damaging to a relationship than not having any empathy. Sometimes, we’d like to be empathic, but we don’t have the time or energy.

I believe it’s possible to “redo” these moments. Carve out some time in your day or weekend to really “listen” to your teen, and relate to what it feels like to be them. That doesn’t mean you can’t consequence them or be disappointed in their actions, but at least you’re doing so from a place of understanding.

It is hard to be a teen. Hormones are flowing, friends are changing, and school and societal expectations are increased. Combine that with the developmental task of discovering your identity and learning to be more autonomous from your parents, and it’s a lot. How many of you really want to go back to high school with an imaginary audience on everything you do or say, and pressure around every corner?

So the next time your teen does something hurtful or slams their door, instead of responding with anger, see if you can respond with empathy. Say something like, “wow, it seems like you’ve having a tough day.” in a calm voice, and let them know you’re there for them when they want to talk. You can still discipline later when everyone is calmer. I’m not going to lie, it’s hard to do when you’ve just been the target of their rage, but see what happens. It may take a few times to see an impact, but don’t give up. You are on your way to a more harmonious relationship with your teen.

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