Why Empathy Matters

Why Empathy Matters

I often think of the faces and stories of teenagers that I get to work with every week.

Their pain is real. Their success changes lives. Their questions are relevant. Their stories change my perspective.

You may be asking yourself, “How deep can you really go with teenagers when you only see them once a week for an hour? Do they actually share? What could they be dealing with that could rival adult problems?”

You would be shocked.

I can learn more about a teen in a one-hour Support Group meeting than many people can find out over months.

How is this possible?

Empathy.

Empathy makes all the difference in the world. In these Support Groups, we are not asking questions because we want to be nosy, tell them what they are doing wrong, or even fix their lives. We ask questions because we want to step into life with them, even when it’s hard and there is no easy fix in sight.

I absolutely love this Brené Brown video. She expertly describes the difference between empathy and sympathy while revealing the power of showing true empathy in difficult circumstances.

 

 

When you watch the video, you can see that empathy is a powerful tool, especially when dealing with teenagers.

Just this year alone, I have had teenagers tell me about:

  • Broken home lives where they are forced to choose who they want to live with.
  • Families who encourage drug use while they are trying to stay clean.
  • Fathers who bring their mistress into the home while mom tries to keep the family together.
  • 30-hour work weeks to help the family pay medical bills.
  • A fear of graduation because that is when they will be kicked out of their house.
  • Extreme racism and name calling in a work environment.

Do I have the answers to these problems? Can I come up with magic words to make the hurt go away?

Absolutely not!

But I can listen. I can tell them that I am so sorry they are having to deal with such difficult life circumstances. I can sit in a chair beside them and step into their world for an hour a week. I can give them a safe, judgement-free zone to talk about their lives and problems.

I can empathize.

I encourage you to try some of the tactics mentioned in the video and to avoid phrases like “at least.” Step into a teenager’s shoes, crawl down into the pit with them, and show that someone cares and wants to listen.

For us to continue to provide these Support Groups and show empathy, we depend on donors like you.

You can donate, pray, volunteer or simply share our content with a friend!

Karlie Duke

Karlie Duke

Director of Communications

Karlie has always had a heart for teenagers. Through her role at Teen Life, she loves to showcase the amazing stories coming out of Support Groups, but she is especially passionate about helping adults and teenagers find connection. Karlie has a BS in Communications with a minor in Family Studies from Abilene Christian University.

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The Power of Consistency

The Power of Consistency

“How’s your wife feeling?”

This question came from a 14 year old young man at a local drug rehabilitation unit where I lead Teen Life support groups.

And I was floored.

Think about it. A kid whose short life had landed him in rehab was asking about how my wife was feeling. For an adolescent to ask a question so far outside of himself in a setting that involves so much inner work was humbling.

The previous week, I had shared during our “check in” that I was a little worried about an injury my wife had sustained and wasn’t healing well. I didn’t think they were listening.

I’d say only about half or even less of my interactions with these guys seem that successful. They have it really hard, and their situations moving forward seem rather dire. A lot of the time, it just seems hopeless.

In fact, I often dread showing up to this place. It’s just one of the harder aspects of my week because I never know what I’m gonna face.

But as I have grown as a helper of teenagers, my mantra is “you will never regret showing up.”

And I never have.

Working with students is hard because it is unpredictable. Despite being prepared and ready, you never know what is going to happen. Sometimes you hit a home run, but a lot of times you strike out or just get a walk.

What we have learned from our work with students here at Teen Life over the last 11 years is the power of consistency. In a world of chaos and confusion, the steady hand is the one who makes the difference.

This bears out in life and should be instructive for those of us who face resistance: showing up is half the battle. Think about the last time you experienced significant resistance. After jumping in and facing that resistance head on, did you regret engaging with the difficult situation? Was there a moment after that you really regretted showing up?

The life of a teenager – no matter when someone experiences adolescence – is hard. And you know who is the most aware of how hard it is? Teenagers. Whether they are able to articulate the difficulty or not, they are aware of how hard things are for an adolescent.

In my experience it is rarely lost on a student when I show up in the midst of their chaos and do so consistently. I don’t always show up with the right answers, or even the right words, but my presence can make all the difference in the world – especially when it is steady.

Whatever you have committed to in your work with students, please do so with the commitment to consistency. You will never know how much impact this commitment will have.

And, you never know. They may ask you about something that is important to you – like those guys did checking in on my wife.

Chris Robey

Chris Robey

CEO

Chris has worked with teens from a variety of backgrounds for over a decade. He has a desire to help teenagers make good choices while also giving their families tools to communicate more effectively as choices are made.

Searching for Strengths and Solutions

Searching for Strengths and Solutions

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Join Chris and Karlie as they talk about Teen Life’s philosophy for working with teenagers! With a quick intro to Solution-Focused Therapy, Chris and Karlie discuss the importance of helping teenagers find practical solutions while also pointing out the strengths and resources they already possess.

In this episode, Chris and Karlie will give some practical tips for how you can use solution-focused tools and questions to interact with the teens in your life. By using scaling, fist-to-five, and good questions, you can help teenagers focus on how they can make a positive change in the future. This discussion is full of practical tips that can help you empower teenagers this week. Join the conversation and let’s start assuming the best about teenagers!

 

Resources:

In this interview, we mentioned the following resources:

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Karlie Duke

Karlie Duke

Director of Communications

Chris Robey

Chris Robey

CEO

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If you have a question about something you heard or just want to give us some feedback, please leave us a comment below.  We would love to hear from you!

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5 Ways to Connect with a Teen

5 Ways to Connect with a Teen

In my Teen Life Support Group last semester, I had a student who seemingly did not want to be there. She refused to talk. She crossed her arms. She kept her head down. After the first week, we talked to her and said that she didn’t have to talk but needed to participate as a member of the group. She reluctantly did the activities, but still never spoke a word.

A few weeks later, another student asked about my family. I explained that my parents live in Alabama, and I don’t see them very often because of the distance. Immediately, my standoffish student spoke. “Wait, you’re from Alabama? Me too.” In that moment, we had created a connection.

Connection. It sounds so easy, right? But how often do we strive to achieve it and come up short? Sometimes, finding a commonality is like finding a needle in a haystack. Some days I wonder if I have anything at all in common with the teens I’m with. Some days I wonder if they even want to connect with me at all.

In their book, The Connected Child, Dr. Karyn Purvis, Dr. David Cross, and Wendy Sunshine walk through a series of connecting principals to help us as parents, teachers, youth ministers, or friends of young people who are struggling and yet seem to reject our help. In order to connect, we have to engage with students. Here are five of their strategies:

 

  1. Behavioral Matching: Reflect your student’s behavior or physical position. This increases their ability to feel safe. It’s less complicated than it seems. When my daughter wants to talk at night, I lay down next her instead of standing over her.  If my smaller child wants to play with cars on the floor, I sit on the floor as well. Find the natural comfort behavior for your teen and match it without even mentioning it.

 

  1. Playful Engagement: Be playful in your conversations. We adults often want to get to the point, address the problem, and fix it. But they often need us to break the ice. We do that by showing that we can have fun. When my teen doesn’t want to do something they deem embarrassing, I do it first. If they are frustrated, say “Whoa? I didn’t know you were the boss!” Let them know they are safe even in disagreements. You can have a deeper conversation once there is more connection.

 

  1. Create Eye ContactWe live in a world where students don’t look at each other. They look at screens. But the eyes are powerful.  Look your students in the eyes and they will know they are cared for. As parents, how often do we yell down the hall or up the stairs. How would things change if we spent more time looking in our teenagers’ eyes?

 

  1. Share Healthy Touch: Give a hug. Pat them on the back. Hold their hand. Play with their hair. If you aren’t sure if it’s ok, ask permission. Students often want to know you care, and you don’t have to use words to show up.

 

  1. Be aware of your tone of voiceAre you loud? Are you frustrated? Are you talking quickly or slowly? Do you even know? You can start and end a conversation just by using your tone. You also can be authoritative without being demeaning or unkind.

 

Connecting through engagement is hard, but as Dr. Karyn Purvis says, “When you connect to the heart of a child, everything is possible.”

My student from Alabama? After she learned we were from the same place, everything shifted. That tiny connection was all it took to help make our group safe for her. She was able to talk through some significant things happening at her home all because of connection.  

A week after group ended, the interventionist stopped me in the hall.  She raved about how this girl was totally different than she was 8 weeks before. What a powerful lesson about the potential power that can be unleashed with just a little connection!

 

Beth Nichols

Beth Nichols

Program Director

With her background in social work and experience as a mom of 4, Beth’s perspective is invaluable. She has had the opportunity in both her personal and professional life to encounter youth from a variety of situations.

A Powerful Relationship “Hack” with Teenagers

A Powerful Relationship “Hack” with Teenagers

A while back, I received a text from one of our volunteers asking to meet in person. This particular person was an influential volunteer for Teen Life and had been really active with us in the past. But I felt like something was up. This person was always someone who communicated more over text and email and rarely, if ever, asked to meet in person.

It turns out I was right. My friend had ended up losing their job suddenly and was asking for prayers and any guidance on finding new work related to their field. I really felt bad for my friend.

Part of what we talk about in Teen Life volunteer trainings is the idea of using our intuition as a listening device. So often we are dulled to our instincts and don’t really trust the gift of intuition in our relationships. In our trainings, we teach the concept of intuition as our ability to understand something immediately without the need for conscious reasoning. That is, we just know something is true.

It’s a weird little quirk of being human. We have the innate ability to sense something is off or wrong – whether we know exactly what it is or not.

But for me it’s all how we use our intuition. Often we use our intuition to identify problems. But Teen Life believes our intuition offers us an opportunity to ask good questions. If we sense something is “off”, we want to be the kind of people who stop and say, “Hey, tell me more about that.” We teach five different intuition “indicators”. They go as follows:

Discernment – essentially our “read” on a situation, whether it is true or not.

Patterns – patterns can take lots of forms, often repeating the same story, phrase, idea.

Red Flags – inconsistencies in a story or telling of a situation.

Strong Emotions – strong language, intense emotions, anger.

Turning points – major events or stories in a person’s life.

As you work with teenagers, you have the opportunity to be a different kind of influence. Teenagers have strong emotions. Their stories don’t always add up. They say the same thing over and over. They have huge elements in their own story they are unaware of and tend to let slip by.

For the helper, our intuition presents significant opportunity. Imagine if you responded with a question instead of correction to a teenager cussing or expressing anger. What if we interpreted inconsistencies in a story as a place to express curiosity instead of accusation?

Our intuition is a strong tool for the helper. If you sense something is off, you are probably right. Or, at least you have the opportunity to be proven wrong.

All you have to do is ask.

Chris Robey, Teen Life’s CEO, has worked with teens for over a decade and strives to help students see the best in themselves.