When Teens Experience Empathy

A teen boy is holding a young child in a foreign country, and the child has his arms around the teen's neck.
Ron Nickel Photography

Two teenagers walked into an impoverished village in Peru and left without their shirts and shoes. Don’t worry. It was entirely voluntary — the result of a heartfelt expression of empathy.

I had the privilege of accompanying these two young men on a journey of service and surfing.

As California kids with dreams of becoming professional surfers, these teens had sponsors who kept them supplied with all the free clothing, shoes and gear they needed — and then some.

A teen's perspective 

Before the trip, these young men had never encountered pervasive poverty. And they didn’t expect to be touched so deeply by people in need.

It was a beautiful moment when the boys had given away the garbage bags full of clothing they’d brought with them, only to spontaneously take off and give away the shirts and shoes they were wearing. Their smiles glowed as their bare feet scuffed the dusty road back to the bus.

That experience changed the way they saw their place in the world and helped them understand what it meant to meet the needs of others. They experienced empathy, the ability to feel and understand what someone else was going through, and they were moved to compassionate action.

If you’ve accompanied teens on a missions trip, you know this type of experience is common. The bigger challenge is practicing empathy in everyday life and relationships.

The importance of empathy

Why is empathy such a big deal?

It is central to establishing strong relationships. Right now, empathy might look like loyalty in a friendship that keeps your child from spreading malicious gossip about a classmate. In the future, it will fuel healthy communication, forgiveness, sacrifice and faithfulness — vital traits in a healthy marriage and successful family relationships.

Consider what a lack of empathy breeds. Research on anti-social behaviors such as bullying and violence has found that a teen who can’t recognize the pain of a victim will have no motivation to change his actions.

Excessive praise, the rise of a cyber-celebrity culture and the instant gratification of the information age contribute to this narcissistic mind-set. But whatever the cause, the ability to see circumstances and feel pain from another person’s viewpoint is a powerful antidote to a self-centered mentality.

How do you help instill empathy

When we consider that Scripture says, “Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4), we recognize the importance of empathy in a biblical worldview.

And that’s where parents come in. Nothing beats modeling as a way to instill empathy in our children. Parents set the tone of a family’s values through their everyday actions.

“Parents’ attitudes and involvement in service work is crucial,” says Kara Powell, executive director of the Fuller Youth Institute. “Research conducted by MTV on teenage ‘activists’ shows that the majority of kids who are engaged in empathetic work have parents who encourage that sort of work and model it themselves.”

With your help, your son or daughter will recognize the incredible value of empathy in their own friendships, dating relationships and eventual marriages.

This article first appeared in the March/April 2010 issue of Thriving Family magazine and was titled "Empathy." If you enjoyed it, read more articles like it in Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine. Get it delivered to your home by subscribing for a gift of any amount.
Copyright © 2010 by Jeremy V. Jones. Used by permission.

Next in this Series: "The Least of These" and Your Teens

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