Help my Teenager: A Different Approach of Empathy and Compassion

Back in April, I wrote a blog post on different approaches to youth work and parenting teens, with the intention of creating a short series of similar blogs highlighting some less-common methods and strategies when it comes to youth work, empowerment, coaching, education and even parenting.

The specific theme of the first of these posts was specifically on the importance of maintaining connection through [effective and creative] communication. The second blog was focused on the importance of incorporating a young person's cultural and creative identity when it comes to educating, empowering and raising teens. Last week, was all about fostering and supporting a teenager's sense of control and levels of confidence as a result.

Today: the final installment of this mini-series [and for the year, actually!] is focusing on the importance of empathy and compassion when it comes to teenagers.

Let's dig in, shall we?

Now, before we get into the nitty gritty of how compassion and empathy play a role in the learning and development of our young people, I first want to draw attention to the fact that some of the most popular queries or topics that seem to be Googled when it comes to these topics are:

  • The meaning of compassion

  • Teaching empathy

  • "Badly behavior" [whatever that's supposed to mean?]

  • Looking at a mirror [a la Michael Jackson?]

  • How to be a better friend

  • Think Designable

  • What are the five key elements of empathy

  • What are the four qualities of empathy

  • What are the three skills of empathy

  • Help your teenager develop empathy

  • 5 tips for helping teenagers build empathy

I'm not going to lie: I'm a little surprised that there seems to be a lot of focus on empathy, yet very little attention drawn to the subject of compassion.

Having grown up in Aotearoa [aka New Zealand], however, the subjects of compassion and empathy are intertwined.

Especially when it comes to raising and educating our next generation.

But while the Center for Healthy Minds poses some fantastic ideas on how to foster empathy building in teenagers, I feel like there's a few points missing.

Let's quickly go over their first five points:

  1. Recognizing the Rise and Fall of Our Thoughts and Emotions
  2. Acting Out Emotions Together
  3. Supportive Attitudes During Teamwork
  4. Caring/Kindness Cards
  5. Compassion Circles

And these ideas and concepts are all great, BUT:

a) may be a little outdated, given that Gen Z is built a little differently to previous generations [seriously: how many 14year olds do you know that resonate with the idea of a "compassion circle"?)

b) feel a little less geared towards teenagers, and more towards kids and pre-teens

c) doesn't emphasize one of the most obvious principles when it comes to empowering young people. In the words of the infamous Maya Angelous: "people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel".

In other words: we need to walk the walk, not just talk the talk.

Okay: let's take a step back for a minute.

What is compassion?

The definition of compassion is the sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others. Compassion motivates people to go out of their way to relieve the physical, mental or emotional pains of others and themselves. Compassion is often regarded as being sensitive to the emotional aspects of the others suffering.

What is empathy?

The definition of empathy refers to the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. It is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference, that is, the capacity to place oneself in another's position.

So what if we incorporated these concepts not just in what we're teaching... but HOW we're teaching?

Let's start with learning Styles

Back when I obtained my teaching qualifications [mid 2000's], I was taught that there were four main learning styles: verbal, visual, written and kinesthetic. These were updated in the late 2010's to incorporate mathematical learning, social learning, solitary learning and - you guessed it - musical learning.

The interesting thing for me, however, is that the original pillars of educational learning didn't take into consideration the concept of imitating experiences or behaviors.

In other words: teenagers will often imitate the actions of those around them, so if we can ensure that they experience compassion up close and personal as they're learning new skills and abilities: we - as adults, educators, mentors, therapists are coaches - can ensure that they will start to emulate the same characteristics.

Well, Justin Bieber: I'm glad you asked.

The most typical learning style for Gen Z is physical/kinesthetic learning. Sure, many teenagers may begin their learning journey by watching someone on TikTok making an omelet: but the learning is only cemented once they attempt to actually make the omelet themselves [aka experiential learning].

In order for that learning to be a positive experience for the teenager, however, [and therefore, for those lessons to actually sink in]: it needs to be a positive experience for them.

And this is when compassion and empathy show up.

A good coach, mentor or teacher will give a teenager clear instructions on how to make an omelet.

A great coach, mentor or teacher will walk a teenager through the process.

An effective coach, mentor or teacher will guide the teenager through the process by not only explaining the what and why of omelet making, but also honoring the mistakes, and helping the teenager recognize that - quite literally - in order to make an omelet: you're going to need to crack a few eggs.

An effective coach, mentor or teacher will take the time to recognize that learning to "adult" is quite often overwhelming and difficult.

An effective coach, mentor or teacher will empathize with, and take the time to understand the overwhelm and stress that can come from learning to cook for the first time.

An effective coach, mentor or teacher will make the teenager feel understood, validated and even inspired to practice self compassion - which is imperative for the mental health and wellbeing of our young people.

Let's relate this back to actual youthwork, shall we? not just... making omelets.

We know that it's important to practice compassion with our young people because we want to make sure they learn effectively.

We know that it's important to allow our young people's emotions to show up in the classroom so that we can help them process. But how do we actually do the work, rather than focus simply on the concepts and principles of compassion and empathy?

Simple:

  1. We make space

  2. We lead by example

  3. We honor whatever feelings and emotional response[s] come up for our youth. We especially acknowledge a young person's pain, but all emotions are important

  4. We demonstrate understanding and acceptance of their emotions, ideas and thoughts

  5. Most importantly: we lead by example, and show empathy and compassion for any and all thoughts and feelings that our young people are expressing

Let's go back to the Center for Healthy Minds.

a) Now that your young person is secure in their emotions, it's not enough to just act them out together - let’s go deeper. It’s essential to really appreciate and understand how they are feeling by giving unique ways for them discover compassion and empathy on their own.

b) Now that your young person feels emotionally supported, honor this by providing creative and unconventional ways to develop a healthy sense of self-compassion and empathy. Instead of "acting out emotions together", [which, by the way, SCREAMS of clinical psychological practices - hello role-playing - from the 80's and 90's]: lead them on an emotional journey in the same way you would guide somebody through making an omelet: step-by-step but allowing room for exploration!

c) The deeper the young person dives into their emotional rollercoaster, it's important to demonstrate a 'supportive attitude". Now, the fine folk at the Center for Healthy Minds specifically mentioned the importance of having a supportive attitude "during teamwork", so what I like to do is ensure that, with my guidance, I can help individuals foster their emotional literacy and better understand how to manage compassion fatigue and burnout. Through the lyrical brilliance of songwriting, they can discover an outlet for true creative expression while transforming any negative feelings into something beautiful.

d) Music is a powerful tool for self-expression and can affect us in ways we might not even realize. As Gen Zers become increasingly consumed by their phones, let's think outside the box to reach them with reminders of compassion and empathy! What better way than through catchy lyrics that they can connect to - because they were written by them - instead of compassion and kindness cards? Let’s create meaningful art inspired by those same affirmations: encouraging teens to look within themselves for positivity—and have some fun creating and listening along the way!

e) The last tool that that Center for Healthy Minds suggested was the concept of compassion circles. If you aren't aware, a compassion circle is, it "includes asking a group of kids to form circles based on their answers to simple questions like “Do you own a pet?” or “What’s your favorite color?” Students mix and converse with classmates they might not have known much about, encouraging them to relate differently to one another, to remove a sense of “otherness” that tends to block compassion." Brilliant concept, but - again - may seem a little elementary for your teenager. Utilizing music and songwriting can support interconnectedness with your teenager/s through the lens of genre, lyrics, moshing, dancing, or performing.

So, what am I trying to say here?

It's quite simple.

Teenagers have changed and evolved - particularly in response to the internet and social media world. Therefore, we need to make sure we evolve too - as teachers, parents, mentors and coaches. But it's not the lessons that need to evolve - it's the way we're teaching them.

Leading by example, with an emphasis on compassion and empathy is not just imperative for the learning and development of our teenagers: it's also important for their mental and emotional wellness.

Teenagers need to feel compassion in the classroom.

Teenagers need to know what it looks like to practice empathy.

Teenagers need support through their negative emotions.

Teenagers need healthy examples of what it looks like to empathize with other people's emotions.

Teenagers need to learn how to both practice self compassion and experience compassion for others.

Because - let's be real - in a world consumed by social media, people tend to forget that the not-so-old, but certainly outdated ways of raising our teenagers need to updated.

And that's why I'm here.

As we continue to evolve our communication methods, it's important to remember the power of songwriting when connecting with teens in 2023. Why not use uplifting lyrics and catchy choruses as a creative way for them embrace self-compassion and empathy? Let's equip the Gen Z generation with musical reminders that kindness, self love, and inner strength truly matter - and are achievable!

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