Your teen might know the proverb about walking a mile in another person's moccasins, but putting himself emotionally into another's place might be more difficult than reciting a proverb. This is the crux of empathy, and it is crucial to your teen’s emotional intelligence. Emotional Intelligence is part of normal development for teens. Emotional intelligence, also known as EQ, helps teens relate to others and learn to keep their own emotions in check. Dr. Robert Brooks, mental health professional and author points out that empathy is a big part of these healthy relationship skills. When teens understand and use empathy, they are more likely to be resilient and less likely to bully others. Like any other skill, empathy can be taught.
Ask your teen to think of a time when he was upset or having an argument. Ask him to remember how he felt at that time. Did he feel that anyone understood his emotions or reasoning? Discuss how important it is to people to feel that their point of views, opinions and emotions are understood. Ask him to describe how the argument might have gone if the other person really understood him.
Encourage your teen to explore empathy by role-playing. Ask your teen to pretend that he is a talk-show host. It is his job to interview you and find out more about a real or imaginary situation. For example, he might interview you about a time when you weren’t invited to a party or when you got a job promotion. Let him ask as many questions as he wishes. When he runs out of questions, ask him to describe how he thinks you felt in the situation. Encourage him to think beyond the obvious. For example, while it might be obvious that you were happy about the job promotion, you might also feel some apprehension about the increased responsibility. Then switch roles, and repeat the process.
Part of learning to understand others require learning to listen to others. As you take turns describing how you felt, take a moment and explore how each of you speaks and listens. As your teen interviews you, tell him how you felt during the process. Use “I feel” or “I felt” statements to describe the situation such as “I felt you were really listening to me when you kept good eye contact,” or “I felt like I lost your attention when you were staring out the window.” Accept words from your teen about your own listening skills.
As your teen learns the value of empathy, help him learn to use it with people who have different abilities. Try blindfolding yourself and asking your teen to describe an object without naming the object or its use. Try to guess what he is describing, and then switch places, so he wears the blindfold. Another good empathy-building game involves taking turns giving each other instructions without using words. Instead, use only gestures. Move from concrete to abstract descriptions as your teen becomes adept at the game. For example, you might start by trying to make your teen understand that you want a peanut butter sandwich, and then move to helping your teen understand that you are excited about your new shoes.