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Adolescence and the Power of Empathy

Expressing emotional awareness and caring for the teenager's feelings matters

Carl Pickhardt Ph. D.
Source: Carl Pickhardt Ph. D.

A great challenge of parenting a teenager is staying caringly and communicatively connected to the young person as adolescence grows them apart.

This necessary separation creates room for the twin developmental goals of adolescence to be pursued -- detaching to establish a functional independence and differentiating to create a uniquely fitting identity, both by journey’s end.

One of the most powerful parental tools for maintaining this sense of connection with their teenager during a potentially more emotionally intense, abrasive, and estranging time is empathy.

Think of empathy as the ability to sense another person's feelings as one's own, and to communicate this recognition in a comforting way so that the other person feels emotionally known and not alone.

For example, the parent says: “Beneath your acting angry at not being selected, I can feel your disappointment over not getting what you wanted and worked for, and I know this loss is hard to bear.” Now the teenager, who didn’t make the team, feels the comfort of loving company at an unhappy time. The parent has expressively put themselves in the emotional place or “shoes” of the suffering teenager who feels empathetically acknowledged, cared for, and supported.


I believe people have a primary need for empathetic connection, to be emotionally accompanied and understood. You can see this primary need in many human places.

  • You can see it in the injured child crying out to receive emotional comfort from the empathetic parent: “I know it hurts, I know, you'll be all right!”
  • You can see it in the popularity of support groups that bring people together who share a common life concern, hungry for empathetic company: “We know just how you feel.”
  • You can see it in the many stripes of psychological counseling where part of what the client or patient is seeking from the helper is empathetic support: “It feels to me that you are feeling really lonely.”

I also believe that when someone in significant emotional distress either is unable to communicate hurt feelings or to get empathetic support when they do, that person can be at more psychological risk of acting out what could better be talked out.

At the extremes, I wonder about school violence and the youthful rate of suicide.

Do episodes of lethal school violence suggest how emotionally troubled male adolescents can often be ill equipped to reach out for the empathetic support they need? In the extreme, perhaps they experience isolation (“Nobody knows how I feel”), alienation (“Nobody cares how I feel”), grievance (“Someone’s at fault for how I feel”), and retribution (“”Someone will pay for how I feel!”)

Maybe gender role socialization has some part to play when boys, to be "manly," learn to suppress such feelings, keep suffering hidden within themselves, and elect to act them out rather than talk them out . After another school shooting, I ask myself: would some earlier instruction in emotional self-management (see 2/19/2018 blog, "Adolescence and Processing Painful Emotion") and having an available empathetic emotional connection have made a difference for the troubled young man, and thus have spared the lives of his victims?

And for both sexes, although mostly committed by males, there is suicide -- when, reaching a private desperation point, self-destruction feels like the only sensible way to end the pain, a final acting out to show the world how unendurable life has become. Would an empathetic connection have had preventive value?


An exchange of empathy between parent and teenager during adolescence is more complicated than when they were parent and child. In childhood, the age where attachment and imitation created mutual closeness, parent and child were highly emotionally attuned to the other as they built a strong bond of dependence and trust. However, this easy intimacy starts breaking down when the girl or boy starts separating from childhood, around the late elementary or early middle school years, as the age of detachment for more independence and differentiation for more individuality begins.

Now, as distance and contrast grows between parent and teenager, it can become harder for the parent and adolescent to understand their different worlds of experience. Intergenerational differences become more pronounced. “You have no idea of what it’s like to be a teenager!” “Well, you have no idea what it’s like to parent one!” The parent could use some empathy too.

Of course, the alteration from child to adolescent can also make parental empathy harder to give because of the teenager’s increasing opposition and separation. It’s easy for parents to feel empathy for the child who compliantly and closely depends upon their help and direction. However, they are more likely to feel put off by the adolescent who is asserting more argument and opposition. In the face of more resistance, they can feel less empathetically inclined.


Part of the parenting challenge with a teenager is to encompass adolescent differences in the relationship. This is why bridging differences with interest by parents is so important to do. So, faced with unfamiliar tastes and interests in their teenager, they as: “Can you help me better understand your love of this music that is new to me?” And they can practice putting themselves in their teenager’s place.“If I were in your situation, I’d feel hurt and angry too!”

Empathy is a connecting response, especially powerful at hard times. For example, consider the parent who practices empathetic discipline. Here the rule is: express concern before applying correction. “Before talking about what happened and what needs to happen next, I need to hear about what matters most – how are you feeling at this hard time.”


Of course empathy can feel like a lot to give when the person suffering unloads and feels better, while the empathizer can load up and feel worse. “I’m exhausted and worried after another night of staying up late listening to our teenager’s sorrow over missing old friends when we moved, and the hardship of starting a new school.” That’s the tradeoff. It takes emotional energy to provide empathetic support. Empathy is an investment in caring.

For the sufferer, it also takes reaching out for listening and disclosing one’s private concerns to ask for empathetic support which may explain why adolescents are often wiser than their parents in this. While young people seem to instinctively know that the journey of growing up is best taken in the company of supportive peers; parents seem more prone to socially isolate and go it alone. “Let’s not tell anyone what is going on with our teenager. It’s better for us that they don’t know.”

Over the years I’ve seen school PTA’s and churches intermittently organize meetings for parents of adolescents to provide a place to share their perplexities, get an empathetic response, and benefit from the experience of others. I believe these gatherings have usually been helpful. Social isolation can make parenting problems during a child's adolescence harder to bear.


Powerfully important as human empathy is, it needs to be a limited response, and that includes between parent and teenager. When it is not, two kinds of enmeshment can result.

There can be emotional dependence, where the parent rides the emotional rollercoaster of the ups and downs of their teenager’s moods. “We can only be as happy as she is.” And there can be emotional identification where parents assume the teenager’s psychological place and respond accordingly. For example when their middle school student has become victim of bullying, they act victimized themselves. “We feel so mistreated!”


Then there is the counter problem to emotional enmeshment – emotional insensitivity, which can communicate a lack of caring, and when it does can increase estrangement. For example, tired of his high school age adolescent acting so sad over what happened, the father becomes impatient, instead of empathetic.

“So your girlfriend fell for someone else. I’m sorry, but it’s not the end of the world! Stop acting like it is. Moping around and complaining, you will just make matters worse. Disappointments happen in life. You need to get over it, brighten up, and move on!” In his view, reverses are to put behind you, not to stop and suffer over. Bearing up an carrying on: that’s his emotional way. But this is not his son’s emotional way, and the teenager feels discounted and dismissed. “Oh what’s the use! You’ll never understand!”

Fortunately, his mother had a different take.

“You don’t cheer someone up by criticizing how they feel,” she advised her husband before taking private time with their son to provide supportive company. So later that night sitting down on the boy’s bed, the woman instinctively uses ‘connective touch’ to signify physically what she is emotionally there to do – not to fix anything, but to listen to everything. She gently clasps one of her son’s hands, and one kind of feeling opens up readiness to receive another as the heartbroken boy pours out his grief into the well of caring created by the mother’s empathy for loss of his first love.

Expressing empathetic concern with their teenager is how parents can acknowledge the greater underlying emotional commonality that is always there to connect them beneath the increasing interpersonal diversity and independence growing between them.

Finally there is this.


In cases where the teenager complains of despondency, desperation, mistreatment, injustice, or threat, parental empathy is not enough if that is all the caring that the mother or father provides. In these cases, empathy alone can enable the continuation of suffering. What is also needed is some protective or corrective action to be taken.

Recall the words of one action-orientated parent whose high school age daughter-athlete was furious at being socially barred from using the weight room after school because by tradition it had become reserved for guys only, like an all-male club. So the mother asked herself: “Why spend a lot of time on giving empathy for my teenager’s exclusion when our energy could be better spent on finding ways to solve the problem? Why waste precious energy listening to her unhappiness about this unfairness when our efforts could be better invested in stopping what is clearly a matter of discrimination?”

Next week’s entry: Parenting Adolescents and Paying Them to Work