By Jake Davis, School Counselor

“It is one of the most beautiful compensations of life that no man can sincerely try to help another without helping himself.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

 A simple definition of empathy is the experience of understanding another person’s condition from their perspective. To do this one must understand other people by using the imagination to feel something like what they are feeling, such as pain, sorrow, and other emotions.

In social-emotional learning, empathy and perspective-taking are cornerstones to all five domains: self-awareness, social awareness, responsible decision making, relationship skills, and self-management.

I am currently reading, Michele Borba’s book, Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed In Our All About Me World. She explains a self-absorbed craze she dubs as the “Selfie Syndrome.”  The condition is centered around self-promotion, personal branding, and self-interest at the exclusion of others’ feelings, needs, and concerns. The University of Michigan reports that teens are 40 percent lower in empathy levels than three decades ago.  While we could debate the findings of studies and the pros and cons of social media use, we are likely able to agree that empathy is at risk in a world where we are more connected than ever yet becoming more disconnected interpersonally.

I often ask adolescents and teens to tell me what they already know about empathy. I typically hear a response involving standing in someone else’s shoes.  This is true and a helpful analogy for children.  What’s most important though is the how. This is where teens find themselves a bit stuck. In Borba’s book she offers five ways parents can help their children walk in another’s shoes:

  1. Switch places: Literally!  Ken, a dad, shared a great way to help kids understand a parent’s perspective.  His twelve-year-old couldn’t understand why Ken was upset when he didn’t call to say he was late. When he finally arrived home, Ken asked him to see things from his side.  “Sit in my chair. It’s warm from sitting and looking at my watch. Pretend you’re me: You don’t know where your son is. Its dark, late, and he didn’t call. What thoughts are going through your mind?” This exercise made it easier for his son to take on his dad’s perspective. It increased the likelihood for real empathy to occur.
  2. Use Imagineering: Suppose your child sent a “get-well” card to grandma.  Use the opportunity to help her imagine how grandma feels receiving it.  “Pretend you receive this card from your granddaughter. How do you feel reading what it says?” You can broaden this by including people your child hasn’t met.  They can pretend they are the new student or a peer that lost their house in a fire. “What are you thinking? What do you need? What can we do?”
  3. Re-do uncaring behavior: Help your child “re-do” an uncaring action by role-playing a behavior that considers another person’s feelings.  “Let’s do that over and say what your friend might want to hear.”  “Try again, but this time, think about how your team would feel if their teammate put you down.” “Start over and ask me in a way that makes my feelings not hurt.”
  4. Ask, “I wonder:” Encourage your child to ask themselves: “I wonder: what does [Uncle Fred, James, Coach] think/feel/need?”  Encourage your child to use this when they encounter new people in their lives.
  5. Reverse sides: The next time there’s a sibling battle or a friendship tiff, don’t offer advice. Instead have your kids reverse sides to see things from another perspective.  Both children then tell the other person’s side of the story instead of their own.  Once they have listened to each other, ask: “Now that you know both sides, how will you work this out so it’s fair to both of you?”