When Teens Experience Empathy

By Jeremy V. Jones
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on pinterest
Share on print
Share on email
Ron Nickel Photography
Help teens change the way they see their place in the world and help them understand what it means to meet the needs of others so they can grow in empathy.

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.

Copyright © 2010 by Jeremy V. Jones. Used by permission.

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on pinterest
Share on print
Share on email

About the Author

Jeremy V. Jones

Jeremy V. Jones, former editor of Breakaway magazine, is the author of books, such as Walking on Water, Tribe a Warrior’s Calling, and Toward the Goal.

You May Also Like

Thank you [field id="first_name"] for signing up to get the free downloads of the Marrying Well Guides. 

Click the image below to access your guide and learn about the counter-cultural, biblical concepts of intentionality, purity, community and Christian compatibility.

(For best results use IE 8 or higher, Firefox, Chrome or Safari)

To stay up-to-date with the latest from Boundless, sign up for our free weekly e-newsletter.

If you have any comments or questions about the information included in the Guide, please send them to [email protected]

Click here to return to Boundless

Focus on the Family

Thank you for submitting this form. You will hear from us soon. 

The Daily Citizen

The Daily Citizen from Focus on the Family exists to be your most trustworthy news source. Our team of analysts is devoted to giving you timely and relevant analysis of current events and cultural trends – all from a biblical worldview – so that you can be inspired and assured that the information you share with others comes from a reliable source.

Alive to Thrive is a biblical guide to preventing teen suicide. Anyone who interacts with teens can learn how to help prevent suicidal thinking through sound practical and clinical advice, and more importantly, biblical principles that will provide a young person with hope in Christ.

Bring Your Bible to School Day Logo Lockup with the Words Beneath

Every year on Bring Your Bible to School Day, students across the nation celebrate religious freedom and share God’s love with their friends. This event is designed to empower students to express their belief in the truth of God’s Word–and to do so in a respectful way that demonstrates the love of Christ.

Focus on the Family’s® Foster Care and Adoption program focuses on two main areas:

  • Wait No More events, which educate and empower families to help waiting kids in foster care

  • Post-placement resources for foster and adoptive families

Christian Counselors Network

Find Christian Counselors, Marriage & Family Therapists, Psychologists, Social Workers and Psychiatrists near you! Search by location, name or specialty to find professionals in Focus on the Family’s Christian Counselors Network who are eager to assist you.

Boundless is a Focus on the Family community for Christian young adults who want to pursue faith, relationships and adulthood with confidence and joy.

Through reviews, articles and discussions, Plugged In exists to shine a light on the world of popular entertainment while giving you and your family the essential tools you need to understand, navigate and impact the culture in which we live.

Have you been looking for a way to build your child’s faith in a fun and exciting way?
Adventures in Odyssey® audio dramas will do just that. Through original audio stories brought to life by actors who make you feel like part of the experience; these fictional, character-building dramas use storytelling to teach lasting truths.

Focus on the Family’s Hope Restored all-inclusive intensives offer marriage counseling for couples who are facing an extreme crisis in their marriage, and who may even feel they are headed for divorce.