SCEGGS DARLINGHURST

In This Together

Empathy
I have met plenty of teenagers (and younger girls too) who appear to have a really well developed sense of empathy. They are very sensitive to the way others are feeling and instinctively seem to be able to respond in exactly the right manner. They are astute when it comes to noticing when something isn’t right with someone and have a genuine deep compassion and understanding for the complexities of life. They can see things from others’ points of view and really put themselves in others’ shoes.

But for most adolescents, this is a skill which develops later. It often takes time, maturity and a great deal of explicit teaching of the skills necessary for real empathy. Those parts of the brain which help with empathic understanding typically develop in girls from around 13 onwards. And for many girls, explicit coaching to help them see things from another point of view is required. Some teenagers need help to see important things in life beside themselves, and need training and assistance to help them have the skills to say the right thing at the right time – it does not always come naturally.

So firstly, do not despair if your daughter is not at all empathic! It could feel that she doesn’t care about anyone but herself - she might not seem to care about others nor understand their feelings and needs; she might not want to engage in anything that doesn’t directly benefit herself; and she may seem to say the wrong thing (or nothing at all) at times when compassion, sympathy and understanding are generally called for. Or it might just be that she needs some help to know how to interpret feelings, and how to express hers sensitively and with confidence. What an important life skill it is for parents to help their daughter develop....

I would like to encourage all parents (and grandparents, aunts and uncles, and other significant adults in children’s lives), to really understand and practise the art of conversation. Conversation is a two-way process. Without conversation, you have a hard time building strong relationships and understanding others. Now, you, as an adult, know so much more than your daughter about every aspect of life! But resist the temptation to always give her the benefit of your wisdom and knowledge! Empathy, understanding, caring for the other are fundamental parts of quality conversations. Deep listening, taking the time to be really present when you are talking to your daughter, and wanting to understand what she thinks, what she likes, what she is feeling, is critical. There is a reason that God gave you two ears and only one mouth! Give your daughter the time to talk and express her thoughts and ideas, even if it takes a long time for her to articulate her opinions and concerns.

Here are some tips to help you help your daughter develop greater understanding of relationships and people. Nothing you can do can develop the medial prefrontal cortex or the limbic region of the brain more quickly than it would otherwise develop! But there are some things which you can do to help your daughter develop a greater sense of empathy in the long-term:

1. Model empathy! The best teaching is by example. So, show empathy yourself. In particular, show empathy to your daughter. Discuss what emotions you notice she is experiencing, and demonstrate that you really care about how she might be feeling. Ask her questions about her feelings and emotions, and talk about how you are feeling too. Listen to her when she talks about how she is feeling. And don’t interrupt and interject with what you think she is trying to say. Let her struggle a little with the words. Be comfortable with the silences. Show you really care about what she is trying to say and let her take her own time to do it.
2. Genuinely encourage her to share and delight in the success and joy of others. There is some research to suggest that how we respond the successes of our friends and loved ones is actually a greater indicator of our capacity for productive, empathic relationships than how we respond in tough times. So start with celebrating other’s successes by always acknowledging, congratulating and duly complimenting them... Show how important and natural it is for you to be excited, pleased or impressed by the success of others.
3. Ask questions to help her to think about the feelings of others, and help her with possible answers if she is stuck! There are so many different situations where this can be used. You can ask questions about how a character in a book or a movie or video might feel. “I wonder how Voldemort might have felt when he tried to kill Harry Potter as a baby?” Try to choose questions which your daughter might relate to, and also choose a range of questions which will elicit a range of emotions. There are also many real-life situations where you can ask similar questions. “I wonder how Grandpa felt when you gave him that special present you made him?” “I wonder how your friend might have felt when she read those nasty comments online?” You can discuss how various people might feel as she comes in contact with them – a new student at school, a person who has been bullied, a person who has gained a special award for some achievement, a person who hasn’t yet established some good friends at school. Demonstrate whenever you can that you can celebrate and feel joy in someone else’s success, and also “feel their pain” when they might be hurting.
4. If your daughter needs it, help her to think about what she might say in some difficult conversations which require sensitivity and finesse. For example, your daughter might need to apologise to someone for something she said or posted online. Alternatively, she might need to tell her teacher something she did wrong. Or school might have organised a mediation session with someone she has had a fight with. Or she might need to talk to someone who has lost a grandparent, or who has a serious illness... She might want to join a new friendship group and needs some skills in forming new friendships. All these situations require a level of sensitivity and empathy if they are to go as smoothly as possible.

So persevere! Your daughter might not yet have a well-developed empathy and finessed people skills. Helping your daughter grow to be a really empathic, understanding and compassionate adult is a long journey. But through every interaction, every communication, you provide her with additional opportunities to help her grow and develop.

Jenny Allum
Head of School