Empathy is Key to Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Teen

The key to raising kind, successful children is teaching them empathy.


The key to raising kind, successful children is teaching them empathy.

The key to raising kind, successful children is teaching them empathy.

Emotion coaching parents guide their teens from childhood to adulthood, teaching them how to deeply connect with others and how to integrate logic with emotion to make quality decisions.

The key to being a good emotion coach for your teen is to practice empathy. Kids learn to be emotionally intelligent by being treated with respect and kindness. A teenager who grows up to be an adult with high emotional intelligence (EQ) will have stronger relationships with others and will be more likely to live up to their highest potential. As parents, we can help to make this happen by being present with our teens.

When we think about how distracted and busy we are, being present and emotionally available is no easy task. Factor in the time we spend on our digital devices and it becomes even more complicated.

In a 2016 survey of 1,800 parents, 56% of parents said they are concerned that their children may become addicted to technology. Yet, in the same survey, researchers found that parents spend more than nine hours a day in front of screen, and the vast majority of that time is spent on devices including phones, tablets, and computers. The survey also revealed that despite that huge amount of time we spend online, 78% of all parents believe they are good technology role models for their children.

Stacey is a single mom with a 14 year-old son named Jack. As I greet them in my waiting room, they’re both on their phones – Stacey is responding to work e-mails and Jack is watching a YouTube video.

I learn that Stacey is worried her son isolates himself from his peers by immersing in his online world. Throughout our conversation, Stacey is getting pinged and texted. At times when Jack seems upset, he disconnects by pulling out his phone.

Stacey scolds Jack when he does this despite seeming distracted herself. It’s difficult for Stacey to set and enforce boundaries for her son’s tech use when she struggles to abide by the same rules.

Both Stacey and Jack tell me they don’t spend much one-on-one time together. When they find themselves in the same room, one or both usually has a phone or iPad out. Because of these tech distractions, they miss out on connecting with each other.

Empathy is in decline

It’s not surprising that teenagers who spend a lot of time on their phones have trouble expressing empathy in person. Renowned psychiatrist and author Daniel Siegel, M.D. calls this skill mindsight, which he defines as our human capacity to perceive the mind of the self and others.

Emotionally intelligent teens become more successful and well-adjusted adults because they are better equipped to navigate complex relationships with peers, bosses, and loved ones.

In alarming studies, empathy scores among American college students have dropped sharply over the past three decades, with the steepest decline happening in the last 15 years. Researchers have suggested that social media may be a cause.

Social media and empathy

Online anonymity makes it easier for us to ignore others’ feelings and become more insensitive or aggressive than we would be in person. While the majority of teens say that they prefer face-to-face over all technological forms of communication, the increasing amount of time spent interacting online means that opportunities to develop and deepen empathy by talking and learning from facial (eye contact) and other social cues (tone of voice) gets lost.

In Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, Sherry Turkle, a sociologist and researcher, shows that we are more likely to feel lonely and disconnected from others as more of our interactions are mediated by technology. We are also more likely to lose our ability to converse, empathize and form meaningful relationships. Like many other researchers, she recommends tech breaks and having intentional conversations as a way to maintain empathy and connection.

While the statistics regarding the impact of tech on empathy and relationships are grim, the good news is that we can reverse things quickly if we take steps to connect with each other in different ways.

Advice to parents from parents

In the past month, Stacey and her son Jack have been consciously spending more time together on weekends, making it a goal to have “device free dinners” and talking about highs and lows of their week. Spending time outdoors together has been a big factor in the relationship improving as well. They have gone on a few hikes and a volunteer beach cleaning activity.

Both of them tell me they are feeling less stressed and Jack says he is reminded how much his Mom cares. She is making more time for fun together rather than their connection being limited to logistics and homework. She is making the time to be an emotion coach and a digital mentor.

I asked Stacey and some other parents of teens who are successfully grappling with the tech issue how they would advise other parents. Here are some of their expert ideas:

Model good tech habits
Try and model good tech habits to set the example and establish a family norm. Take time for yourself to disconnect and engage in activities that have nothing to do with technology such as going to the beach, exercising, yard work, or talking with other parents and friends.

Take “Time-In” instead of “Time-Out”
Help your kid to take what Daniel Siegel calls “Time-In,” which are consistent breaks to intentionally focus on their inner world without devices. Stacey sets a 3 minute timer for Jack to write down (in pen) 5 positive things about his day, every day.

Set limits
It’s okay to set limits on tech use. Explain to your teen how you came to your decision so they understand it’s not arbitrary. Keep an open mind on your teen’s point of view. Don’t expect them to be happy about rules they believe are too strict. Your kid will be upset with you sometimes, and that’s normal.

Have fun
Have fun and play with your teen. Often we get into gridlocked fights with our kids, focusing on logistics, grades, and their messy rooms. Do something your teen wants to do that you wouldn’t dream of doing yourself. See a Kevin Hart movie. Go mountain biking together. Listen to your kid’s music. Playtime is good for parents too!

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Sinead Smyth, LMFT is a Certified Gottman Therapist and Level 3 Trainer in Gottman Method Couples Therapy. Her counseling practice, East Bay Relationship Center, has offices in Pleasanton and Alameda, CA, and works with couples, families, teens, and individuals. You can visit her website here.