Helping Teens Value Empathy to Navigate a Divisive Climate

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In a world where people seem intent on “choosing sides,” empathy can help make society more humane and inclusive. Parents can use some simple approaches to help their teens develop empathy and apply it to today’s most difficult issues, says Deanna Slamans, author, conference speaker, curriculum writer, and educator.

In today’s divisive cultural and political climate, “where ‘choosing sides’ is more pronounced than ever, how do we help our teens value this important, yet often missing character attribute called empathy?” asks Slamans. “In reality, when both sides dig in their heels, who really ‘wins’? We should examine the sides we choose under the lens of a higher moral character, leading with empathy in mind. Because empathy always wins.

“Brené Brown, author of Daring Greatly, explains that empathy drives connection,” says Slamans. “But when we choose sides, the very act of choosing drives disconnection. Empathy is never about sides, rather Brown defines it as ‘feeling with people’….Empathy walks with a person alongside them as they stumble through the mess. We walk free of judgment, and free of searching for the ‘right’ answers.

“Brown goes on to describe empathy as a skill that strengthens with practice and encourages people to both give and receive it often. Why is this an important skill for our current climate? Because ‘by receiving empathy, not only do we understand how good it feels to be heard and accepted, but we also come to understand better the strength and courage it takes to be vulnerable and share that need for empathy in the first place’.”

“Not only is empathy missing in our toxic political culture, I believe empathy is the cure for our toxic political culture,” says Slamans, who advocates actively teaching empathy to your teens: “Create a plan to be intentional about what empathy looks like day-to-day. Make sure to be ready to teach what empathy does not look like as well. Be prepared to share real-life examples in your discussions with them, and keep in mind the goal is to help guide them to a deeper understanding of the powerful effects of empathy.”

Among the tools for teaching empathy she suggests are stories on social media, as well as books and movies that can be viewed and discussed; experiencing other cultures to understand their points of view; and encouraging teens to serve others, such as elderly neighbors, explaining “the purpose of serving and how to do it with empathy in mind.”

She points out the four attributes of empathy as outlined in Brown’s book, I Thought it Was Just Me (But It Isn’t):
• To be able to see the world as others see it.
• To be nonjudgmental.
• To understand another person’s feelings.
• To communicate your understanding of that person’s feelings.

“Our cultural divide is a deep one that only threatens to widen,” says Slamans. “Our responsibility…is to prepare the next generation for a future that is safer than the one in which we grew up. The safest future, for our children, and their neighbors around the world, is one where empathy takes center stage.”

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