At Hallways, we have long recognized that building empathy is a fundamental component of our work to enhance the wellbeing of young people and their communities. Parents and educators usually agree that increasing empathy is a worthy goal, but sometimes express confusion about how it relates to our broader goal of preventing risky behaviors, like substance use. In this blog post, we want to elaborate on why we think empathy is so important, and how it fits in to our prevention efforts.
Empathy is generally understood as the ability to understand someone’s emotional state and react in a way that’s responsive to that person’s needs. Empathy is a key skill for building close and supportive relationships, and research has shown a strong relationship between empathy and positive outcomes like increased social competence and an increased ability to help and share. Empathy has also been shown to be a protective factor against negative outcomes like severe behavioral issues and delinquency.
Most of us know that empathy is important, and have a general sense that it’s a good thing to promote in young people. In fact, the majority of parents and educators report believing that raising caring children is more important than raising children who are high achieving. However, we also know from researchers at Harvard University’s Making Caring Common that most young people value achievement and their own happiness over caring for others, and that they believe their parents and teachers feel similarly. Whatever parents and teachers intend, young people are receiving the message that being empathetic isn’t as important as being successful.
What does this mean for young people? We see the negative consequences of the intense focus on achievement in our work, and in the research on youth growing up in the culture of affluence. These teens experience immense pressure from their families, their schools, and themselves and as a result are increasingly perfectionistic and competitive with one another, and frequently experience low self-esteem and internalize routine setbacks as personal failures. They are more prone to high levels of stress and anxiety, and lack the coping skills needed to deal with the amount of pressure they feel. While they may have friends, young people in affluent settings have trouble being vulnerable with them and asking for support when they need it. And, importantly, their emphasis on achievement doesn’t appear to have any effect on how successful they are; in fact, some studies have found that the pressure young people feel to be successful actually negatively impacts their grades.
We know that all of these factors can put young people at risk for engaging in risky behaviors. That’s why we’re committed to building the skills and values that help build a strong sense of self, close and supportive relationships, and inclusive communities – all things that help protect young people against these risks. Empathy helps children and adolescents respond to each other with kindness and care, and builds the kinds of relationships where young people can get help when they need it. Empathy encourages children and parents relate to one another and stay close. Classrooms where teachers foster a culture of empathy are even associated with higher levels of academic achievement. It is an essential part of wellbeing, and a key part of keeping young people happy and healthy.
Tips for building empathy in young people:
Help young people to name and talk about how they are feeling.It’s very difficult for young people to imagine how other people are feeling if they’re not in touch with their own emotions.
When your child or student is talking to you about their day or problems they’re facing, look for opportunities for them to practice perspective taking. For example, if they’re having an issue with a friend, ask them how they think their friend is feeling. It can be very easy to focus on yourself, and sometimes all that’s needed is a simple prompt to help reframe the conversation and work on building empathy.
Model empathy for the young people in your life. Be empathetic to your child or student (“It seems like you’re feeling really stressed out. I can imagine this situation is very difficult for you. How can I help?”), and to others. For young people, what you do is just as important (if not more important) than what you say.