4 ways to encourage empathy in your teenage son

Apparently, every human being is capable of empathy.

And then there are teenage boys…

To say adolescent boys lack empathy is of course, a sweeping generalisation. All kids feel empathy.

However, when boys hit their teens, many parents observe a shift away from thoughtfulness, sensitivity and perspective taking in favour of eye rolling, door slamming, self-involvement and insensitive comments.

Research backs this up. This 2014 study found gender differences in empathy skills emerge during adolescence, with girls demonstrating higher levels of empathic concern than boys. It also found that girls’ empathic concern remained stable across adolescence, whereas boys showed a decrease between the ages of 13 and 16 years. Fortunately, boys’ sensitivity recovered in the late teenage years.

If you think your teenage son might have hit his ‘empathic rock bottom’, don’t wait for biology to kick in on his sweet 16th. Try these 4 strategies to help him buck the trend.

  1. Talk about feelings, often

Your teen may appear emotionless but it’s likely he’s simply protecting himself. Many younger teenage boys find it difficult to know how to handle complex feelings. You can help by engaging him in regular discussions about emotions. Take the focus off him and talk about how an emotion-inducing situation in life or in the media made you feel. Then ask him how he feels. You’ll help him tune in to the emotions of others, as well as his own.

  1. Put it on paper

If your son struggles when asked to talk about his emotions, ask him to try writing about them instead. Challenge him to write a letter about something he is struggling with, and to provide details about his emotions, then keep the channel of communication open by responding to him in writing.

  1. Use role-play to help him step into someone else’s shoes

If your son shares information about an argument he is having with a friend or a struggle he is experiencing with a teacher, engage him in role-play where he takes on the role of the other party. This sounds daggy, but it actually works. Just pick your moment – one where you both have time and privacy. Pause regularly and ask your son questions about why he thinks the person he is depicting is acting as he. Resist the urge to jump in with what you think. This is his chance to see things from another perspective.

  1. If dad is around, make sure he gets involved

Various studies have shown that fathers (or father figures) play a special role in empathy development. In a 2011 study found that teens with supportive fathers reported feeling better after talking over their worries with their dads. These teens were also shown to be more skilled at perspective taking. If dad isn’t around, asking a uncle or male friend to step in may help to get your son talking.

Brought to you by Brighton Grammar School

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