Repost: Why Empathy Matters

Repost: Why Empathy Matters

This week’s blog post is most likely to bring some deja vu to any dedicated readers of TeenLife. My name is Maddi and I work as an intern for TeenLife. This week I was asked by Ricky to find an old blog post that I connected to and repost it. After looking through many old posts more than once, I found one that was written pretty recently that really spoke to me. I have had my fair share of difficulties in life and have even participated in a support group provided by TeenLife since 2014. In this group I experienced, and continue to experience, true empathy. For the first time I was in a safe place that I felt comfortable talking about my troubles in. I had previously attempted to confide in my closest friends but found that to not be very helpful. Of course they had the best intentions and did their best to try and help me through my hard times, but there was no way they could have understood what I was going through. In this group I was in a place surrounded by people that weren’t trying to make me feel better by spouting the typical lines most people do. They understood what I was going through and empathized with me. I chose this blog post because most people choose to sympathize rather than empathize. My hope is by reading this you will realize how to be the type of person a friend can and will go to for help. 

This post originally posted in May right before our Spring Fundraising Event. 

Tomorrow is our Feed the Need Packing Party, and we are so excited to help more teenagers through the meals packed and funds raised through this fundraiser.

As we prepare for this fundraiser, I can’t help but think of the faces and stories of teenagers that I get to work with on a weekly basis. 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 the Brené Brown video below. 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.

In order for us to continue to provide these Support Groups and show empathy, we have our annual fundraiser. And so I also encourage you to get involved with our fundraiser! You can donate, pray, volunteer or simply share our fundraising page with friends to raise more awareness and help us reach our goal. It is not too late to make a difference in the lives of teenagers – join us!

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.
We Don’t Give Up

We Don’t Give Up

Recently I concluded a guys only Support Group at a local high school which, at the time, I thought was pretty successful. I had built some strong relationships with those young men, found common ground, and seemed to gain their trust. A measure of success for me with teenagers is their willingness to talk about the real stuff – and these guys had no problem telling the truth, even to the point of being uncomfortable. 

Fast forward a few weeks. I walked into another group which is at a local drug rehab for adolescent boys. One of the guys from my previous group was there. He had broken his probation for drug use and was mandated a treatment program. I had also found out two other boys from my previous group got caught up in some heavy drugs and kicked off their school campus. So, what I thought was a successful guys group turned out, at least on its surface, to be a bust. 

If you work with teenagers very long, you will face some disappointment. Really, it’s part of signing up. But, it isn’t why we get into it. 

I got into working with teenagers because I felt like they were a lot of fun to hang out with, I could relate, and maybe I could contribute to their growth in some way. That’s why most people get into a helping profession involving kids. We just love being around them. 

But we aren’t always motivated by what it really takes to be successful with teenagers – the long haul. This is especially true in cases involving teenagers in crisis, that is, students who have significant risk factors at play in their family and development. 

Part of leading a group with those guys helped me understand more about their background. They all had at least one parent who had either rejected them or was no longer in the picture because of prison or by choice. Their systems failed. People failed. Bad choices were made. Labels were applied. They were now “bad kids”. 

Then, one by one, the adults surrounding these guys gave up on them. These boys in return gave up on the adults around them. Everyone just gave up. 

And, after working with these guys for a long time and watching them just fall back into drugs and bad choices, made it tempting for me to give up on them too. They knew what I hoped for them. They remember our conversations. It was really discouraging to see their choices and what path they traveled. 

But here is the thing. At the drug rehab, my young friend lit up when he saw me. I was a familiar face in a difficult situation. We got to talk, and he expressed to me his desire to get things together. My other two friends connected with me as well, and we were able to process the consequences they were about to endure and what they could do differently in the future. 

I chose not to give up on them. And, that is a choice I will likely have to make a few more times before the story is complete. 

Why am I writing this? Don’t give up. That’s what I’m saying. For those of us who work with teenagers – we don’t give up. It isn’t an option. So many others will give up. You don’t have to. 

If you are an adult in a relationship with a teenager who is disappointing you – don’t give up. 

Keep the relationship first. 

Set realistic expectations. 

Keep your eyes on the future. 

Process mistakes and set different goals. 

Don’t give up. 

We don’t give up. 

Chris Robey, Teen Life’s Program Director, has worked with teens for over a decade and strives to help students see the best in themselves.
Strengths Are Better Than Weaknesses

Strengths Are Better Than Weaknesses

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 In this episode of Season 3 of the Stay Calm, Don’t Panic! Podcast, Chris Robey talks with Dr. Becky Taylor about the importance of helping adolescents focus on their strengths rather than their weaknesses. While it is easy for us to point out our own flaws, improving strengths are a greater motivator. Join the conversation with Dr. Taylor and find out how you can encourage teenagers to use their strengths to become more successful!

In this episode, Dr. Becky Taylor discusses…

  • The impact of focusing on strengths rather than weaknesses.
  • How adults can use relationship to encourage teens’ strengths.
  • Some ideas on how to help teens build talents and strengths.
Ask yourself…
  • Am I giving my teen opportunities to discover their talents?
  • How can I encourage and point out the strengths in teenagers?
Go ask a teen…
  • What are the things that you feel come naturally, and what things do you have to work harder on?
  • What are the strengths that help you meet your goals?
Resources:

In this episode, we mentioned the following resources:

About Us:

Becky Taylor, Ph.D., was appointed to the TCU College of Education faculty in 1998 to begin the school counseling program, and in 2009 she was appointed Associate Dean for Undergraduate Studies in the College of Education. She is a Licensed Professional Counselor/Supervisor, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, an approved family mediator, and a Registered Play Therapist-Supervisor. Dr. Taylor’s research lies in the areas of risk and resiliency and its application through Solution Focused Therapy.

Chris Robey is the Program Director for Teen Life. Earlier in his career while working as a youth minister, Chris earned a Masters Degree in Family Life Education from Lubbock Christian University to better equip his work with teenagers and families. Chris’ career and educational opportunities have exposed him to teenagers from a variety of backgrounds. Follow him on Twitter!

Karlie Duke started working as Teen Life’s Communications Director after graduating from Abilene Christian University with a degree in Communications with a minor in Family Studies. Karlie has worked with teenagers for the past 5 years and is passionate about encouraging students to live better stories. Follow her on Twitter or Instagram!

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!
The Things We Want

The Things We Want

Each year, the staff here at Teen Life go on a short planning retreat to take stock of the previous school year and make plans for the next. Our fearless leader, Ricky Lewis, always sets up a framework for the staff to work through that not only helps us look back, but also helps us to look to the future and dream a little. I always look forward to these retreats as an opportunity to sort out what we want as an organization, to take a breath, and center ourselves on our work.

This year, Ricky threw us a little curveball and asked us to take a few minutes to write down some of our big picture dreams for what we want to be doing, not only in our work lives, but in our personal lives as well. Taking the time to work through some of my true desires for work and home reminded me of another really helpful exercise I will sometimes use with the teenagers we serve in Support Groups.

As a part of our groups, I will have the students imagine what it would be like if their life story was written as a movie or tv show. In other words, if we were to watch them as a character in their own story, how much would we be interested? Would we stay to watch it until the end, or would we give up on their character?

Donald Miller has done a lot of work in the area of story and helping people understand the different narratives that can be at play as we make decisions. Part of his writing looks at characters and how they are defined. According to Miller, a good character can be described this way:

“A good character wants something and is willing to go through conflict to get it.” 

So if you can think of any good character, we can identify clearly what they want and the sacrifices and struggles they go through in order to attain what they covet.

As we worked through our dream list, I found it helpful to remember what I truly desire out of this life. As one who loves and cares for teenagers, I feel compelled to do the same with them.

Too often, adults have dreams for the students they help but often do not know what they really want. If you don’t believe me, you should see the blank stares I get from teenagers when I ask them what they really want out of life. It’s not that they haven’t thought about it, but more that the adults in their lives have never asked them – or at the very least helped them think through what they want.

It is a powerful exercise to write down the things you want, even if it seems a little crazy (trust me, my list seems a little crazy). But when you write it out, you are forced to consider what needs to happen to accomplish those goals. What if we found creative, yet practical ways to help the teenagers around us to identify what they really want?

Here are some questions to ask:

– What do you want to be happening in your life around the age of 20? 30?

– If you woke up tomorrow and felt like you accomplished something significant, what would you want it to be?

– What is something you want to be different in five years?

– What is one job you would not consider to be work?

– What kind of people would be in your life if everything was good?

I’ve had some of my best conversations with teenagers talking about what they really want. It’s all really just in how you ask the questions. I know how great it feels to think a little about what I want. You get the chance to do the same. Give it a try!

Chris Robey, Teen Life’s Program Director, has worked with teens for over a decade and strives to help students see the best in themselves.
Lessons from “The Bad Kids”

Lessons from “The Bad Kids”

I am a huge fan of Netflix. In the mood for a comedy, drama, thriller or documentary? You can choose from thousands of TV shows and movies. While I typically watch Netflix for personal gain, I recently came across a documentary called The Bad Kids (you can also find it on iTunes and Amazon). I’ll confess – I am not a documentary person. Give me fiction and fairy tales all day! But this particular documentary intrigued me because I work with students just like the ones highlighted in this film. I work with “The Bad Kids” every week, and I wanted to see what I could learn from the heart and work of someone halfway across the country.

Before I go any farther, I would like to make a disclaimer that this post is not endorsing this film, saying that I agree with every part of documentary, or even asking you to go watch it. While an accurate portrayal of this population of students, there is extreme language used throughout the film. That being said, I found value in the methods and practices used by the film and believe that it is worth my time to share what I learned!

On their website, The Bad Kids summary is:

At a remote Mojave Desert high school, extraordinary educators believe that, more than academics,
it is love, empathy and life skills that give at-risk students command of their own futures. This coming-of-age
story watches education combat the crippling effects of poverty on the lives of these so-called “bad kids.”

It is so refreshing to see the media recognize excellent educators and administrators for the difficult work they do with students each and every week. We have the privilege of working with counselors, principals, teachers and staff who also believe that love, empathy and life skills can make a huge difference in the lives and academic careers of students – that is why they partner with us!

In this film, you see students who are in a tough place and deal with circumstances that most adults would struggle with. There is teen pregnancy, sexual assault, substance abuse, absent parents and so much more that they face in addition to their school responsibilities. There is no question that these “bad kids” have difficult lives (both by personal choices and unavoidable tragedy), but the Black Rock Continuation High School chooses to step in for these students who are at risk of dropping out of school completely.

While watching this film, I saw several important tactics that can not only benefit the work done with at-risk students but can be applied to any relationship with a teenager. One thing I have found in my work with Teen Life is that you don’t have to be a “bad kid” to desire love, empathy and help with challenges.

 

Teens need empathy.

For a refresher on empathy, please read my last blog post on the subject! But this documentary fully supports how much empathy and a listening ear matters to teenagers. At this particular High School, Principal Vonda Viland is a superb example of what empathy looks like and how it can affect a relationship. Students trust her, are honest with her and seek out her advice because they know that she will listen. And she doesn’t always have the answers. Sometimes, she admits that their life is difficult. And instead of subjecting them to a lecture she asks simple questions like, “What do you think needs to change? How would that decision affect your life? What needs to happen for you to get motivated?”

Empathy is a powerful tool.

Teens need to be held to a high standard.

Is life challenging for these teenagers or any teen in general? Absolutely. But they do not need to be babied or held to lower standards because of it. When you treat a teenager with respect and clear standards, they are more likely to rise to the occasion. I love that Principal Viland does not hold back any punches with her students. From their first day on her campus, she tells them what is expected and what the consequences are if these expectations are not met. She is not going to hold their hand, drag them out of bed or force them to come to school. But to stay in her school, students have to play by her rules and most do. In the film, you see so many students thrive under this straightforward approach. They know what to expect and what is expected of them.

When held to a high standard, teenagers have the opportunity to live up to their potential.

Teens need motivation.

Teens can be stubborn – but can’t we all? Most of the time, they don’t want to do something if it won’t benefit them in some way. And I understand that. I remember the frustrating days of learning about geometry and astronomy and wondering, “Will I ever use this information again?” What I love about The Bad Kids is that the teachers make an effort to put what they are learning into context for each student. For example, one of the boys loves music and playing his guitar but hates math. He is struggling and doesn’t see the point. Instead of getting defensive or giving up, his teacher puts it in perspective – you need math to play music. As she explains this concept, it clicks. He just needed the motivation to see past his current frustration and situation.

Motivation and inspiration could be the difference in a student graduating and dropping out.

 

Teens need celebration.

We need to celebrate our teenagers better! They are more likely to repeat good behavior when it is praised than to stop negative behavior when it is punished. Let’s be a positive force for our teens and get excited when they accomplish a goal. Principal Viland shows this all throughout the film. She celebrates when they come to school on a consistent basis. She even hands out certificates for completing credits and recognizes hard work in front of the entire school. She tells them when she sees improvements and recognizes when they avoid old habits. Celebration can be a small thing, but even something as small as a $5 gift card makes a huge impact on a teen who is trying to survive.

May we not get caught up in the bad things teens do, but intentionally look for ways to celebrate the good things!

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.
Why Empathy Matters

Why Empathy Matters

Tomorrow is our Feed the Need Packing Party, and we are so excited to help more teenagers through the meals packed and funds raised through this fundraiser.

As we prepare for this fundraiser, I can’t help but think of the faces and stories of teenagers that I get to work with on a weekly basis. 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 the Brené Brown video below. 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.

In order for us to continue to provide these Support Groups and show empathy, we have our annual fundraiser. And so I also encourage you to get involved with our fundraiser! You can donate, pray, volunteer or simply share our fundraising page with friends to raise more awareness and help us reach our goal. It is not too late to make a difference in the lives of teenagers – join us!

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.