Growing empathy in teens: Here's what to know

Empathy is the ability to recognize and respect the feelings of others.
Teen sitting with sibling on a dock talking

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By Michelle Balani

Empathy is the ability to recognize and respect the feelings of others. It also involves listening carefully when others speak and responding to their needs with care and concern. Research suggests that those with a strong sense of empathy have better social interactions and tend to be more successful in school and in the workplace. Studies have also found that those with high levels of emotional and social skills, including empathy, are better prepared for the transition from high school to college. You can build your teen’s sense of empathy by finding opportunities that will allow them to practice this skill.

Talk about current events and social issues. You can help your teen understand the importance of respecting the perspectives of others by using examples of current social issues to spark conversations about empathy. Watch the evening newscast together, or point out newspaper and magazine articles and talk about the feelings and behaviors of those involved in these issues. For instance, there have been many stories about immigration in the news recently. Talk to your teen about where they stand on the issue, and ask them to identify the feelings and reasons of those on the opposing side. You can also have them come up with ideas on how to address this issue, and meet the needs of all those involved.

Discuss the role that empathy plays in college and in the workplace. At this age, many teens are thinking about the next steps in their personal journey, whether it’s going to college or entering the workforce. Empathy is essential to your teen’s continued success, and by providing them with specific examples of this skill in action, you can help them realize its significance in the adult world. For instance, in college, there are many group assignments where empathy is necessary, as some students may not contribute as much as others. This is when it’s good to understand the different working styles of others and use this knowledge to find ways around challenging behaviors. Empathy can also help when dealing with different personalities in the workplace, which can be quite difficult for some people. Explain to your teen that if they understand where others are coming from, they will be better prepared to deal with diverse personalities and that by applying empathy to all their relationships, they have the potential to excel in their career and beyond.

Parent Toolkit resources were developed by NBC News Learn with the help of subject-matter experts, including Maurice Elias, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab; Jennifer Miller, Author, Confident Parents, Confident Kids; and Michele Borba, Author, and Educational Psychologist.