Dear Teen Parenting Coach

“Q: How Can I Teach Empathy to My 15-Year-Old?”

The teen years see remarkable (and sometimes jarring) development in the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for emotions — regulating your own and tuning into the emotions of others. Here, learn how to help your adolescent better “read” and understand how other people are feeling.

Q: “My 15-year-old son struggles to connect with others. He seems to lack empathy, and also has trouble showing compassion. How can I help him develop the emotional maturity I see in peers of his age group?”

Teens and Emotional Maturity

Several reasons help explain your son’s current emotional maturity level. Keeping the following factors in mind can help reduce your frustration and concern as you begin to work with him to develop empathy and other skills:

1. The adolescent years are naturally a time of intense emotional development and maturation. Teens experience emotional highs and lows as their bodies change, as they develop a sense of self, and as they increasingly focus on their personal relationships. These changes rarely come easily or smoothly.

2. ADHD complicates emotional development and social skills in teens. The prefrontal cortex, which is implicated in emotions, takes longer to develop in ADHD brains.

Your 15-year-old, therefore, may act more like a 12-year-old sometimes in terms of emotional development and regulation. This difference can make for a challenging, confusing experience for your teen when navigating social, academic, and family demands. They may compare themselves negatively to their peers as they navigate these challenges. Since teens with ADHD often experience peer rejection and isolation, they may really struggle with learning how to socialize and practice tuning into others (especially with social distancing and remote learning).

3. The way children are socialized has a significant impact on how we learn and display understanding of others’ emotions. It is said, for example, that boys often “mature” slower than girls. In reality, girls are taught to define themselves through their connections to others more than boys are, so they develop the capacity to read people’s feelings and become attuned to them earlier. But, boys are more than capable of learning this skill too. Kids with ADHD who often miss cues or misread them will need extra practice in this area, regardless of their gender.

[Click to Read: How Do I Teach My Teen to Manage Emotions?]

How to Teach Empathy to Teens

To help your child build awareness and sensitivity to others, scale back expectations and start from scratch.

Here is one exercise that can be practiced every day, even without in-person social interaction: Ask your teen to observe others and report what he thinks is happening internally with them. Help them notice the effects of their words or actions on others. Encourage active observation and thought by asking questions such as:

  • “What do you notice is happening with them right now?”
  • “What’s the expression on their face?”
  • “How do you imagine they might be feeling?”

It may be easier to do this exercise while watching a sporting event, a news report, or a TV show. Your teen can also practice this at the dinner table or during a family Zoom call with their grandparents or cousins. When you debrief their observations, make sure to keep your feedback neutral, with an aim to clarify and correct through awareness and acknowledgement.

While it may be difficult with social distancing, take some time to find groups or clubs your teen could join, whether locally or as part of school. Informal groups, especially if they relate to an activity your child is interested in, are great ways for your teen to practice building empathy and interpersonal skills organically.

How to Teach Empathy: Next Steps

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