What does compassion have to do with having an easier time as a teenager?  What can parents do to encourage and teach to our children to be more compassionate when there are so many other distractions and role models distracting them from learning these lessons?

According to James G. Wellborn, a clinical psychologist with 18 years of experience working with parents and teens.  “The teenage years are unlike any other in a person’s life – it’s a unique in-between period from childhood to adulthood, and it’s helpful to remember that problems during this time are actually normal,” says Wellborn, author of the new book “Raising Teens in the 21st Century: A Practical Guide to Effective Parenting.” “But teens still require guidance, encouragement and good ideas to see them through to adulthood.”

According to Dr. Wellborn, “A universally admired trait, spanning all cultures, religion and philosophy, is compassion. A truly compassionate teen will inevitably have a host of other positive qualities, including patience, understanding, sensitivity, tolerance, intuition and more.”

Dr. Wellborn suggests a number of ways that parents (and grandparents) can instill compassion in our children regardless of their age:

  1. Model it: Compassion is largely learned, so be aware of how you act around your children. How did you respond to the request for money from that panhandler on the street?  What comment did you make behind his back, in the presence of your kid? What did you say about that idiot driver who just cut you off in traffic? Your children are watching, listening and modelling your behavior.
  2. Notice it: Point out examples of compassion that occur around you. It comes in many forms. Often, if we take the time to look, we can find those people who quietly, and without recognition, helping others in need, including volunteers of all types. Making a game of identifying instances of compassionate deeds you’ve witnessed may be one way to encourage your child to notice and understand acts of compassion.
  3.  Teach it: As parents, we teach compassion not only through our words but also our actions (See modelling). Regardless of the child’s age, it’s important to teach children how to be empathetic and work on seeing things from another person’s perspective.  Otherwise it is difficult for them to appreciate what another person is going through. Remember what your grandparents, teachers or camp counsellors told you: “You can’t know how someone else is feeling until you walk a mile in his shoes!” Perhaps it’s time to pass along that saying?
  4. Anticipate it: Character can be fostered by projecting moral strength into their future. In this way, you will be subtly shaping the adult they are working to become. It’s never too early to remind your child that the lessons he or she is learning at an early age will help them be a self-assured and respected teenager, and later, as an adult.
  5. Guilt it: A personal value system serves as a means of accountability to oneself (your family and community). This begins with the value system parents promote in their kids. Even when we wish we could avoid these conversations, when a child makes a bad decision or doesn’t react with compassion or empathy, as parents, we need to discuss why these actions are not acceptable and offer alternatives that mirror the family’s values. According to Dr. Wellborn, “If they fulfill the promise of personal values it is a source of justifiable pride.” Violating personal values should result in guilt for not doing what’s right and shame for letting other people down. Parents need to help their kids along with this.
  6. Repeat it: Like any lesson, learning often comes with repetition. Once is not enough when it comes to character. Find every opportunity to work it into the conversation. Using all of the strategies mentioned above, you will be able to work character issues into every possible situation in a remarkably diverse number of ways. Okay, so it may drive your kids crazy, but according to Dr. Wellborn, “mentioning character often – at least once every couple of days – and in many different forms will help ensure that these characteristics become values and traits they can carry into adulthood.”

Dr. Wellborn’s book couldn’t have come at a better time in our family. As a perceptive 4th grader, my child is acutely aware of what “the popular” kids are doing and she struggles with whether or not to emulate their behavior (good or bad.)  Often after school, I am regaled with stories from the playground.  Using some of Dr. Wellborn’s suggestions, I try to capitalize on opportunities to turn these stories into lessons about being compassionate and showing empathy when someone is left out of a game or has had a bad argument with another friend.  Hopefully she will learn that, regardless of what others are doing (or not doing), she is strong and self-assured enough to do the right thing.

Disclosure: I received a copy of Dr. James Wellborn’s book, Raising Teens in the 21st Century: A Practical Guide to Effective Parenting.  All thoughts and opinions are 100% my own.