Every day I read posts on social media like these:

“My teenager called me a B*tch today because I wouldn’t drive her and her friends to the mall.”

“My teen just told me to shut up because I asked him to pick up his laundry.”

“My teen told me to F Off. I never thought this would happen and I have no idea what to do next.”

If you have spoken to your parents like that, you would have been six feet under in about 6 minutes! And at what point are you allowed to say that’s enough? You can’t talk to me like that.

It's not because you're a bad parent or your teen is the ‘bad apple’.

This is unfortunately an epidemic I’m seeing for many reasons, all coming together in a perfect storm.

Empathy is at an all-time low in adolescence. It was down 40% in studies from 2010. The average American college student in 2009 scored as less empathic than 75% of students in 1979.

Scary trend, right? I believe you deserve to be treated with respect and dignity, and so does your teen. So how do we start turning this around?

What is empathy? 

Empathy is a way to recognize and connect to the emotions of another that doesn’t require you to have had the same experience, nor to agree with another’s experience. 

Empathy has four dimensions: 

  1. perspective-taking – being willing and open and available to taking someone else’s perspective in any one given situation.  
  2. suspend judgment – you’re willing to suspend judgment of another’s feelings and experience at least for a short time. 
  3. Emotional boundaries – you are not at threat or at risk by taking another’s perspective and doing so doesn’t make you wrong and another right.  
  4. Physical cues – recognizing others’ emotions through body language, words, and tone without having to be told

How did we get so far off course?

Back in the 60s, parenting started to shift ever so slightly from the complete authoritarian style of previous generations to a version of the same that allowed for a sliver of emotion in children. Parenting still came with a healthy fear but was less about survival in war times and allowed children slightly more freedom of basic choices. 

Studies show that every decade since then, parenting has gotten less and less authoritative creating a transference of power over to children and we’ve now passed the middle ground. This means children feel equal to their parents in authority and decision-making in many situations. 

Children are growing up more entitled, more disrespectful of authority, and more self-centered than ever. 

In Canada in 1976, 83% of families were single income, leaving one of the two parents at home with the children creating critical face-to-face, relational time to build empathy. As of 2010, over 85% of families, are now dual income which means children spend less time with parents at a young age. 

Then there’s technology. 

Digital devices aren’t the entire reason your teenager is so mean, but they do play a large role. Empathy is developed in the brain at a very young age and for the most part, it happens via the face-to-face connection. The unconscious side of your teen’s brain that perceives subtle nuances in the 97% of nonverbal communication misses out on those cues when they participate in relationships via text or other messaging apps. 

All of the tiny muscle movements in the receiver’s face, tone of voice, inflection and intonation, body language, etc., is all missing in the digital realm, so your teen’s brain isn’t building awareness of these cues. 

Adolescence is one of the most critical times for empathy development because a teen’s emotional brain is developing far more complex thought processes (software) and physically densifying (hardware). Empathy is a critical relational skill that’s not being installed as part of the new software! 

Growing up in the era of keyboard courage. 

Your teen is a product of the world we’re creating by no fault of their own. They are growing up in an era where the majority of their communication is void of impact. Teens don’t see any reaction or have a perception of impact from the receiver so they’re blissfully unaware and unaccountable if they’re being nasty or not or if your feelings are hurt. 

This builds keyboard courage just like you and I see on social media all day. Teens feel a sense of safety and security behind their device and their confidence, boldness, and sometimes cluelessness in what they dish out continues to grow. 

During this pandemic, teens have spent more time than ever on their devices as a connection tool to their social networks. Although adolescent psychologists are saying this is ok for the time and important to support positive mental health, it does reinforce the growing trend of lacking empathy. 

As if all that wasn’t enough… 

Empathy is critical for the development of emotional intelligence and is also considered one of the best indicators of moral behavior. Empathy improves mental health because it improves emotional intelligence – the understanding of self and emotions and knowing how to express them. Without that, anxiety goes rises, followed closely by depression. 

Adolescents who show up with low empathy, have higher conflict in their life. They don’t take responsibility for their consequences or for the harm that they might be inflicting. They have a higher propensity for bullying and struggle with taking the perspective of another. 

Here’s what you can do about it. 

  1. Humanize yourself by modeling emotion using, “I feel X about Y” to support your teen in developing an emotional framework and learns that emotional expression is normal. This requires vulnerability which builds emotional safety and fosters emotional intelligence. 
  2. Let your teen understand their impact whether it’s positive (let them know how you feel about their specific actions) or negative by asking them to rephrase their words in a less aggressive/hurtful way. 
  3. Stop having every frigging conversation via text because smartphones were never intended to build healthy relationships! Make an agreement to use texting for logistics, like when they’re coming home or when you’re arriving to pick them up, rather than trying to have a full relationship via text. I know teens are allergic to talking on the phone, as are many adults, yet it’s the only way to start building empathy. 
  4. Let your teen know what respect feels and sounds like to you and ask what it means to them. When you’re both demonstrating respect, you’re more likely to create empathy and be equals as humans, not equal in authority. 
  5. Create opportunities to serve others, even family members by helping out at home with cooking and cleaning. Serving creates humility and supports empathy. 
  6. Ask your teen questions that have them take other’s perspectives i.e., how does their favorite fiction/movie/tv character feel in certain scenes? How do they think their teacher or sibling feels in specific situations? 
  7. Read Amy McCready’s The me, me, me epidemic, or Alicia Eler’s The Selfie Generation 

You deserve dignity and respect, as does your teen, and that starts with building empathy. Like anything else worth doing, it takes consistency and commitment to keep going even when it’s messy or feels hard. By showing vulnerability through expressing emotions, you humanize yourself and create a safe place for your teen to release their tough protective layer. It’s never too late to start.  

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