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 was in one of Teen Life’s original support groups and now is our Communications Director. She is passionate about encouraging students to live better stories.
The Accidental Ally

The Accidental Ally

I remember getting the late night phone call that two young men from the youth group I led had been arrested and put in jail. They were African American brothers who lived with their very conservative grandmother. On top of being in jail, they had also found out that their grandmother kicked them out of the house, so now they were homeless.

They had gotten into a fight at a local gas station that was racially charged, and one of them used his belt buckle as a blunt weapon defending himself. The local police department arrested them on the ambiguous charge of “Suspected gang violence”.

At the time I was pretty young, single, and lived in a rather large, church-owned parsonage. To me it made a lot of sense for these guys to have a safe spot to lay low and let things simmer down with their families. The problem was, I wasn’t family and I didn’t know how to make that happen.

So, I contacted a local attorney that I knew to take their case pro-bono. He bargained with the DA for the brothers to be under my care for six months with certain stipulations (I.E. getting a job, going to school, obeying a curfew) in exchange for their release and reduced charges.

With that started some of the most important six months of my life learning more about what it meant to be a young black teenager in a small town. I learned about systemic racism, fatherlessness, inequities in the education system, and police brutality. My life was never the same.

But, this post isn’t about that. I’ve been thinking a lot about this period in my life lately, for good reason. I’m so thankful for those months of learning and laughing with those guys. Yet there has been another question nagging me as I’ve considered race in our country – why was it so hard for them, yet so easy for me?

These guys got into a scuffle at a gas station. The video footage showed that it wasn’t much at all, but it was a fight. And it ended up with them in prison, homeless, and with multiple school suspensions. Their entire futures were put in jeopardy for a fight.

I on the other hand was living in a home, basically rent-free, that was WAY too big for me. All I had to do was make a few phone calls to find the right people to help. And for some reason, the DA considered me trustworthy enough to release them to my custody, even though I wasn’t family.

You see, the more I think about this story, it wasn’t that I was special.

I was white.

There should have been zero reason those brothers would have been released to me with such ease. Local law enforcement asked very few questions. There was no house visit. It was just a brief meeting with me, the DA, and their attorney.

For those who do not believe white privilege exists in this country, I ask you to be more self reflective. I’ve always loved thinking back on this time, but what I should have been thinking about is how inequitable everything was. Why was I so easily able to pull strings for their release, yet the hammer fell so hard on their shoulders for a mere fight?

You see, I was an accidental ally. I, through my whiteness stumbled into a situation where my whiteness was able to benefit a person of color. Yet, white privilege was so strong in my mind that I didn’t even understand the inequities I was up against, and yet still used my whiteness to get what I thought was just and right.

I write this during a time of great upheaval in this world along the lines of race. Hard questions are being asked of white people and systems that we have been ignoring for far too long. In so many areas, I’ve been an accidental ally – a white person willing to help when asked, and feel good about myself when my whiteness creates better outcomes for people of color. Most of the time I don’t even realize I’m doing it.

That is how powerful white privilege is.

In this particular story, I was merely an ally. I helped and I learned, but I didn’t use what I learned to challenge the system on behalf of my friends. Now it’s time to be less an ally, and more a co-conspirator. That is, locking arms with my friends of color and using my privilege to affect change at the systemic level.

We at Teen Life believe there is much to be done in the arena of public education in terms of race and equity. As an organization, we believe we can do better in naming race and injustice in the schools we serve and work towards better, anti-racist policies – especially around discipline, justice, and mental health. We want to do this on purpose, and with conviction.

But this is the lane we operate in. Think about where you operate and serve. What do you care about? How are the organizations you care about asking the hard questions around race and equity? How can you be asking hard questions around race and equality to affect positive change in your arena?

We would love to engage with you on this – please comment below with your response!

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

 Listen & Subscribe

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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:

About Us:
Karlie Duke

Karlie Duke

Director of Communications

Chris Robey

Chris Robey

CEO

Have a question?
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.

The Enneagram & Teens with Beth McCord (part 2)

The Enneagram & Teens with Beth McCord (part 2)

Parenting with the Enneagram and how to help teens find their type

Join the Teen Life Podcast as we continue our conversation with Enneagram coach and expert, Beth McCord! In part two of this interview, we finish discussing characteristics of each Enneagram type and then dive into how you can use the Enneagram to reach teenagers, especially in the context of parenting.

In this episode, Beth with cover the core desires, core fears, weaknesses, and longing of Enneagram numbers 7-9. She will then use her own parenting and Enneagram experience to discuss how we can help teenagers find their type, and how we can use the Enneagram to better work with teens.

The Enneagram can be a powerful tool when working and living with teenagers. Jump into this incredible discussion with Beth McCord as we take a look at some practical ways to use this tool.

 

Resources

In this interview, we mentioned the following resources:

Have a question?

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!

About Us

Chris Robey

Chris Robey

CEO

Karlie Duke

Karlie Duke

Director of Communications

Beth McCord

Beth McCord

Special Guest

Follow Us

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Enneagram & Teens with Beth McCord
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