5 Strategies for Teaching Empathy to Teens

Two Connections Academy students

Empathy is a quality that has come to the forefront of social and professional conversations over the last several years—and with good reason! Not only is empathy a quality that can aid adults in the workplace(opens in a new tab), but it’s also an important quality to focus on in childhood development. 

Developing an empathetic heart and mind can help children, and especially teens, become more conscientious, self-aware, and sensitive to the needs of others, which can translate to greater ease in creating friendships, social relationships, productive conversation, and so much more. 

Check out these insights from psychologists and other experts on how to nurture empathy in teenagers, plus five great ideas for teaching empathy to teens. 

What Is Empathy? 

To convey the importance of empathy for teens, it’s necessary to first understand what empathy is. According to mental health education resource Verywell Mind,(opens in a new tab) empathy is defined as “the ability to emotionally understand what other people feel, see things from their point of view, and imagine yourself in their place.” There are different levels and expressions of empathy, but essentially it has to do with the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.  

Why Is Empathy Important? 

Empathy is an important emotional response that has many benefits. Some of the benefits of developing empathy(opens in a new tab) for teens include: 

  • Ability to build stronger relationships with other teens and educators 
  • Increased tolerance and acceptance of others  
  • Reduced likelihood of bullying  

In addition, adults who practice empathy are generally shown to have greater success, both personally and professionally. So, teaching empathy to teens can help equip them for a brighter future in many ways.  

Online students learning empathy by volunteering in a garden.

How to Teach Empathy to a Teenager 

Here are seven tips for you to encourage the development of empathy in your household and assist you with teaching empathy to teens. Most of these are also great empathy activities for middle school students, and can help build a foundation for empathy in their formative years. 

1. Be a positive role model. 

One of the best ways to learn is through modeling desired practices. Do your best to model empathetic behavior in your daily life, and especially in your interactions with your teen. Give them your full attention. Ask them how they feel and ask questions about why they feel that way.   

2. Play devil’s advocate. 

Teenage life comes with its own set of struggles and challenges, many of which will be centered around personal relationships and disagreements. When your teen runs into a disagreement, encourage them to see the other person’s point of view, and put themselves in their shoes. Can they see where the other person may be coming from? This is a great way to discuss and implement empathy (and also a great practice for teaching empathy to middle schoolers). 

3. Look to history for empathy-teaching moments. 

Being a teenager offers the benefit of being able to look to difficult historical events that are not recommended for younger students. Learning about acts of injustice and social catastrophe, such as the Holocaust, can educate teens about empathy on a larger and more historically-driven scale. 

4. Highlight lesser-told stories to encourage historical empathy. 

Similar to observing and discussing large-scale historical events to promote empathy, another great tactic is to specifically seek out lesser-told stories of injustice and struggle that might prompt discussion on empathetic response. This allows teens to “analyze history through multiple perspectives,” and tap into the power of historical empathy(opens in a new tab).  

5. Use art and photography for empathy-teaching moments. 

Another unique way to encourage empathetic thinking in teens was made popular by The New York Times in their “What’s Going On in This Picture” series(opens in a new tab). This series presents a photo without a caption and prompts students and readers to make their own observations on what might be happening in the photo.  

Other Great Resources for Instilling Empathy in Teens  

In addition to the empathy exercises for teens mentioned above, here are some other great learning resources from Connections Academy® that can help teach compassion and empathy to students: 

Focus on teaching your teen empathetic practices and watch their relationships, engagement with school and extracurricular activities, and self-esteem grow as a result! 

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