IMAGINE Magazine-Spring2016 - Page 22

FIRST PERSON Got Empathy? by Debra Beck and Erin Staadecker Is empathy something that some people are naturally born with and others aren’t? Is it a learned trait or an inherent quality to be brought forward? How can we help our youth deepen in empathy? T here is a significant amount of neurological research today that indicates the prefrontal cortex is the last part of the brain to mature. In fact, it doesn’t become fully formed until a person reaches his or her mid-twenties. These studies say that due to an immature prefrontal cortex, teenagers tend to make irrational decisions and exhibit a poor sense of empathy. I can partially appreciate these conclusions because I have worked with teens that exhibit a sense of invincibility and have a lower fear factor than most adults. But as far as empathy goes, I’m not so sure I agree. In my mentoring practice, I see many teens that express concern and caring for others, including their parents. I also see the other side of the spectrum where teens seem to be completely self-absorbed. I’ve often wondered why it is hard for many of them to have real experiences of empathy. Here are a few my observations: l Teens often do not take time to stop and think about how their actions might affect themselves, let alone others. They are more inclined to be running off to do 22 IMAGINE l SPRING 2016 l l l the next exciting thing. This can set up a habit of making the same mistakes over and over. Interestingly, it just doesn’t occur to them to do anything else. Teens are me-centric. As parents, we actually train them to be this way when we allow our world to neurotically revolve around their needs and desires. When teens are caught up in their emotions and hormonal ups and downs, it can be difficult for them to transfer any sensitivity or concern to someone else. Many teens have challenges expressing how they feel. Asking them to put themselves in someone else’s shoes and imagine how they feel might not be easy. Bottom line: I believe it is up to us as parents, guardians, and teachers to use opportunities that arise to help bring forth the inherent, and often latent, capacity for empathy in our youth. We can do this by taking time to talk with them about situations that might come up in school. Ask questions like, “What would it feel like if you had a learning disability and the kids at school were making fun of you and you were eating lunch alone everyday?” Engage in dialog about difficult issues around the world, and not just about what is happening, but how the people and even animals must feel in those situations. Expose them to challenging conditions and have them consider what it would be like if it were actually happening to them. It’s hard to cultivate empathy for others when you don’t take the time to slow down and imagine walking in their shoes. Recently I was introduced to a young woman named Erin Staadecker, who is currently the program director for seniors in an assisted living facility in Seattle. She shared some of her earlier experiences that led up to a college project where she put herself in the shoes of a homeless person and what she learned about herself. Erin’s story I was raised by two highly socially-mindful parents who brought me to homeless shelters since the age of three; I endured my own trials with adoption and personal loss and grew up in a generation that speaks fairly candidly about racism, sexism, classism, and any ism we can rally around. To top it off, I’m a woman! So I should have this handled. Whatever the true source of human empathy, I’m discovering it’s a mountain with no top, and my relationship to it is constantly transforming.  When I was four I explained to my mother, very matter-of-factly, that we are all brothers and sisters and we need to take care of each other. I recall in fourth grade, standing up for the nerdy kid being bullied at recess. As one of the “cool kids” I couldn’t