The current generation is lacking the ability to truly relate to the people in their lives ie. empathy.  They are more comfortable living in a digital world while keeping their relationships at surface level than to be willing to take the risk of being empathetic.  We fear to share in the feelings of the people around us. This is in opposition of what God wants for us. 1 Corinthians 12:26 states “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.”  God calls us to help walk along side the people in our lives and share our life experiences. 

What is Empathy?

 Empathy is a very misunderstood concept. I honestly didn’t truly understand what it meant until I went to Graduate School to become a counselor.  Empathy is the ability to see life through someone else’s eyes. Empathy asks us to be vulnerable with another person by sharing a piece of our own experiences. It forces us to take a risk and share something of ourselves. It seems to have become a real struggle for young people to be willing to let their guard down and share feelings.  They have become so afraid of judgement and criticism. They also struggle to communicate their feelings. The truth is that we are built for connection and this fear keeps us from being able to communicate in a way that helps us truly understand and connect with one another.  

How Kids Learn Empathy

Young people are often expected to see their life through an adult perspective. Childhood is meant to be a time to be a self-centered knuckle head.  That’s how a young person learns. At this point of life, a young person is trying to figure out life through their own perspective as well as from those around them.  As they are able to increase their ability to understand someone else’s perspective, this ultimately draws them to a deeper connection with that other person. When my son, Alex, was 7, he struggled with a bully at school.  Alex was used to having everyone in the class adore him. One day he came home from school complaining about how he had been treated by another student. He was so upset and just felt this boy was a jerk. After we talked him through what he could do to help the situation, we also addressed this student struggles and possible reasons for his behavior.  It turns out this child had a parent who was in jail. We helped Alex see that not every kid is able to come home to both their parents and a comfortable home like he does. Going through this situation helped him develop more empathy for his classmate instead of just thinking he was a mean kid. Alex eventually reached out to his former bully and they became friends. At the end of the year, the bully ended up becoming the one that was bullied. Alex was given the opportunity to step up and support the kid that had once bullied him.  He had learned his new friend didn’t have the ability to stand up for himself, so he changed roles and taught him. If Alex would have not learned to see life through this other student’s experience, empathy, it could have led to a long year of anger and sadness. Instead, Alex was able to gain a new friend and also teach him skills to stand up for himself.  

A Major Barrier to Empathy—Lack of Listening

Lack of listening has become another barrier to building empathy.  Listening is the key to being empathetic. We often are so eager to fix a problem for someone or to interject our own story, we fail to listen.  Being an active listener is one of the most important pieces of communicating. Most of the time young people don’t talk to their parents or other adults simply because they feel they won’t be heard.  I hear all the time from clients “They (parents) always try and fix my problem,” “My parents always cut me off when I talk,” or “I just get yelled at when I tell them how I feel.” It is hard to be open about feelings if the person listening is doing a poor job or just waiting to get a word in to be critical.  In order to become a truly good communicator it is just as important to listen as it is to talk. Listen so hard and intentionally that you can’t think up what you are going to say while you are listening. 

One of the Biggest Obstacles to Listening…

What can get in the way of listening?  Cell phones are one of the biggest obstacles.  We all think we are multi-tasking when a friend is talking to us and we are scrolling through Instagram or watching a funny cat video. That type of listening does not build good communication or connection.  It shows that the person sitting across from them is less important than a pug wearing a TuTu. It is important to listen without distraction because it shows the person their value. 

Time and Attentiveness Matter

Another issue that many young people run into when trying to share their feelings is their friends don’t give them time or attentiveness.  Perhaps their friends struggle with the topic themselves, are too self-absorbed, or are afraid of their own feelings. This fear of being vulnerable pushes people more into isolation. Young people look to other sources to “feel” connected such as social media and video games. This isolation only leads to depression and anxiety.  Most people struggle with being uncomfortable. Being vulnerable does just that, but it is a risk worth taking. It helps people become connected to each other and build trust in their relationship.

Trying to be Empathic? What TO Do and NOT to Do.

There are a few stumbling blocks that people trip over when trying to be empathetic.   It is typical for someone to try and make the best out of a situation. One of the worst statements in the world is “everything happens for a reason.”  Maybe that is true but when someone is struggling, that is not a way to connect to them. It is better to simply say, “I am so sorry that this has happened, and I am here to listen and support you.”  When listening to a friend, it is important for young people to lean in towards their friend’s feelings. It can be overwhelming and finding the right thing to say may seem impossible, but what a friend really needs is someone to show up and be present.  

Empathy is a skill that needs to be taught and embraced instead of something that is feared.  We need to choose to be comfortable with the discomfort in order to meet our friends and family where they are.  To be truly connected it takes a little risk, but the payoff is always worth it.

Next Steps:

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