Borderline Personality Disorder,  Parenting

Tips For Teaching Teens Compassion, Empathy

Independence is earned by demonstration of responsible behavior.  In other words, if your teen is responsible by consistent demonstration of getting his homework finished on time, coming home before curfew, going to sleep and rising on time—then he should be rewarded with increments of extra freedom and independence.

Tips For Teaching Teens Compassion, Empathy (link)

Dr. Fran Walfish Answers Your Questions

Q: Dear Dr. Fran, my wife and I are worried about our 16-year-old daughter. At times she can be cold, callous, and mean to us. Compassion does not seem to be part of her personality. Can this be taught? Please help us! -Jason E.

A: Dear Jason: empathy and compassion are learned best by experience. If the child is treated with warmth, empathy, and compassion, she has a high likelihood of becoming an empathic adolescent and adult.

Of course, this empathic relating must begin at birth when the new mom responds to each of her infant’s cries/needs. This warm maternal response should carry through into the early and middle childhood years.

You may ask: “What if this warm responsiveness did not occur in the child’s early life?” Can it be taught to a teen? The answer and final outcome depends on a number of complicated things.

• Number one, and most importantly, the teen must personally want to become a compassionate, empathic person. Without that desire, the change will not happen. To change requires a tremendous amount of motivation and hard work.

• If, indeed, the teen is motivated to change, he or she usually does best if they have a mentor. The mentor can be a parent, teacher, relative, minister, counselor, or therapist. It must be someone the teen looks up to, admires/respects, and can trust.

This opens the pathway for communication. You can tell the teen to treat the other person the way they want to be treated. But, without the idealized respect and trust it will fall on deaf ears.

• Independence is earned by demonstration of responsible behavior. In other words, if your teen is responsible by consistent demonstration of getting his homework finished on time, coming home before curfew, going to sleep and rising on time—then he should be rewarded with increments of extra freedom and independence.

These added freedoms need to be comfortable with both parents. Maybe, you let him stay out one hour later with his friends on Saturday night. Or, perhaps you allow him to go to a rock concert with his buddies.

• Parents can help their teens by building in the expectation of reasonable failure. In other words, to be successful one must first experience rejection, failure, and disappointment. Learning to deal with inevitable letdowns only makes success, when achieved, that much sweeter.

Personality development begins much younger in the toddler and early childhood years. By adolescence, personality is virtually set and gelled.

• A key way parents affect teenage personality development is how they relate to their kids.

If a parent is harshly critical the teen will likely emerge with a harsh Superego. That’s a fancy psychological way of saying the teen is strongly self-critical. After years of being the target or object of the parent’s criticisms, the teen takes in (Introjects) the parent’s harsh critic and becomes a self-critic.

If during the infancy, toddler and early-childhood years, the parent does not consistently warmly read the child’s cues and needs accurately or the parent inconsistently responds to the baby, then the child grows up to be uncertain of where she stands in the mind of the mother (significant other). The child emerges with fear of abandonment and a black -and-white style of relating. She either loves or hates you. There is no gray in between. The personality is called Borderline Personality Disorder. There are many, many ways in which parents affect the type of personality organization their teen will develop.

• Role models are crucial in a teen’s life. A highly-regarded, trusted, confidante (grandmother, aunt, teacher, priest, therapist) can save a teen from walking down the wrong path in life. A loving uncle can take his nephew under his wing and rescue a teen from family dynamics and the temptation of evil (drugs, truancy, and delinquency).

• Parents can serve as role models, as well. That’s why it’s so important for parents to be accountable for their errors. Own up to your mistakes. Teach your children to strive to be “good enough.” Help them see that perfection does not exist. When they err teach them to forgive themselves gently to remain motivated to keep trying.

• Teens are well defended. They have developed and practiced skilled ways of locking parents out of information.

Ask your teen a question and you are likely to hear words like, “Fine,” “Okay,” “Nothing’s up.”

This frustrates parents greatly. Bottom line, open honest communication begins early on. It is nurtured and nourished all through the lifespan. Teens generally hate to be told what to do.

• Make your suggestions by wondering out loud. For instance, say things like: “I wonder what you think about trying it like this sometimes,”or “Have you ever thought about what might happen if you did it this way?” Try to present your ideas by giving your teen an out if she doesn’t want to listen. You always get another chance later to run your idea by her again.

Dr. Fran Walfish–Beverly Hills psychotherapist and author of The Self-Aware Parent at Send questions to

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