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It turns out that empathy is contagious, so try to pay it forward

<i>Konstantin Postumitenko/iStockphoto/Getty Images via CNN Newsource</i><br/>Experts say that one of the best strategies for teaching teens empathy is modeling it.
Konstantin Postumitenko/iStockphoto/Getty Images via CNN Newsource
Experts say that one of the best strategies for teaching teens empathy is modeling it.

Dr. Katie Hurley, CNN

(CNN) — People love to categorize teens as self-centered, but in my office, they are anything but that.

“How should I help my friend?”

I hear that question at least three times a week from teens who recognize that their friends and classmates need support. They see a friend struggling, and they want to help. That’s empathy.

During adolescence, the main goal of teens is to build independence to prepare to fly the nest, and they do this by building connections with their peers. Close friendships provide stability, mutual support and stress relief for teens. Though it’s common for teens to hang out in packs, both in person and online, it’s not always obvious that some are learning to empathize with their peers.

It’s worth it to help our teens learn this consideration for others. A new study that tracked 184 people (99 females and 85 males) for two decades starting at age 13 found that empathy is catching. Researchers found that empathy spans three generations and has ripple effects that transmit from mother to teen to children, according to the study, which published May 22 in the journal Child Development.

The best part about the study? Modeling empathy and engaging in empathic communication were the only strategies used.

Researching empathy across generations

Beginning in 1998, the teens, their mothers and their closest friend were all invited into the research lab at the University of Virginia to engage in problem-solving or advice-seeking first with their mom and then with their friend.

All interactions were recorded to code for maternal warmth and emotional support from mother to teen, followed by coding for similar behaviors in how teens supported their friends when the friend asked for advice. When the teens were in their 30s and had kids of their own, they were surveyed to ask about their parenting behavior and their children’s empathy.

Results of this long-term study showed that mothers’ empathy for their teens at 13 predicted teens’ empathy for their friends during the adolescent years (ages 13-19), and that the ability to show empathic support to friends in the teen years predicted more supportive parenting in adulthood and greater empathy in the next generation of kids.

When we practice empathy with our teens, we literally pay it forward for the next generation.

Dr. Michele Borba, educational psychologist and author of “Thrivers: The Surprising Reasons Why Some Kids Struggle and Others Shine,” was not surprised by the results. She was not involved in the study.

“The best way to show empathy is with warm relationships,” she explained. “These mothers showed parental warmth with their teens, and these teens learned empathy in the moment. They brought that empathy to their peers, and it all adds up as they grow until they become more emotionally secure parents themselves.”

That can be hard to do with moody teens, so I asked Borba to share her top three tips for building empathy during the teen years.

Look and listen more

It’s OK if you’re not sure how to meet your teen in these emotional moments.

“Parents often tell me they’re worried about what to say when teens come to them,” Borba said. “I tell parents the best thing they can do is sit with their teens, focus on them, and listen to understand where they’re coming from.”

Are you worried about handling intense teen emotions? I encourage parents to follow the 80/20 rule: listen 80% of the time; talk 20%. Teens want to feel seen and understood, and that’s best achieved by listening and watching for their cues.

Handle your own stress

Stress can be contagious in families, and you can’t help your teens if you are feeling compromised.

“Your empathy goes down when you’re stressed, so take a breath and do what you need to do before you tune in and try to figure out what your teen needs,” Borba said. “We all have our own coping strategies, but consider taking a brisk walk, phoning a friend or drinking some ice water to cool your own stress before you deal with your teen.”

Talk feelings more often

There are clear benefits to being open and honest about all kinds of emotions. Parents should be mindful not to dump their own stressors on their teens, but it is healthy to identify and talk about feelings.

“Research shows that teens often misinterpret how parents feel,” Borba said. “Talk about feelings more often to help confirm emotions and move on.”

Using “I feel” statements around the house gets the whole family into the habit of talking about feelings. Borba also pointed out that literary fiction is one of the simplest ways to get families engaged in talking about feelings. Read the same books so you can talk about the characters and storylines. Watching TV together is another way to discuss experiences with a little bit of distance.

Above all, what your teens need from you is uninterrupted time together to feel heard and understood. Empathy development doesn’t occur within the context of a single monologue, rather a series of chats over time. When your teens come to you for help or advice, drop everything (especially your devices) and listen.

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