Enacting Empathy


When I am in the classroom and ask students “what would you do, or who would you turn to, if you or someone you knew needed help?” a common response I hear is “tell a trusted adult.” Sometimes students may be referring to me, but most often they are not. I spend one day, two days, maybe a couple of weeks with these students. Most often “trusted adults” means YOU- parents, coaches, teachers, older siblings, family members, neighbors, or others in their community whom they have gotten to know and trust.

Molly Pistrang, REACH’s Youth Education Specialist

Being trusted adults brings responsibility. We want to keep our youth safe yet we know they need to build skills to build a safer community for themselves. As trusted adults, how can we help youth build those skills? How do we work to build a culture of accountability?

One of our values at REACH is “we’re all in this together,” an idea that is rooted in empathy. Empathy is acknowledging and honoring our collective experience and individual identities and actively working to uplift each person. So how do we build the capacity and intention for empathy in our youth? As that trusted adult, you have already built a foundational relationship to get the conversation started. From my outside perspective as an educator, here are some additional strategies:

Reflect on how you and they view empathy

  • Ask the youth in your life: what does empathy mean to you? Some may think solely about the surface level definition of empathy: “standing in someone else’s shoes.” Some may regard empathy as seeing something from another perspective (what empathy means). Some may view empathy as understanding what someone is experiencing, and acknowledging that we all have different strengths, issues, and identities (why empathy matters). And some may understand empathy as genuinely caring about others and helping to care for others (how we actually enact empathy).
  • Ask yourself the same question. Understanding how you view empathy will help you reflect on the ways you embody empathy.

Ask questions during open and equal conversations

  • Use situations that naturally exist. Maybe you’re watching TV or talking with your child about something that happened at school. If a scenario is brought up (i.e. my friend’s partner has been teasing them about their culture), talk to them about it!
  • Ask questions! Encourage them to think about how they would feel in a situation. Ask them: “what would you do in that situation?” “Have you seen or experienced things like that before?” Share your thoughts but keep the focus on the youth. They’re choosing to talk, so give them the space and listen!
  • Actively listen. Active listening is part of empathy and models that you are wholly involved in the conversation.
  • Focus on how intent can be different than impact. Ask questions like “how did you feel? How do you think they felt?” Encourage and model the use of I statements and think about diverse perspectives and experiences.

Expand the conversation

  • Youth live in a physical and digital world, and so do we. During your conversations, discuss how we act in different spaces. What is the difference between something happening in a physical, digital, public, or private space? Is there one? What do we do and how do we respond in these diverse realms?
  • Come up with relatable examples that reference their experiences. Example: someone is posting embarrassing pictures and mean comments on your friend’s Instagram account. How would you respond?

Model behavior

  • Practice empathy. Even if it doesn’t seem like it, the youth in your life notice how you respond- or don’t- and absorb your behavior, language, and mannerisms.
  • With your youth, examine your power and privilege. What part of your identity do you have to think about? What do you not have to think about? Model a willingness to give up some of your power to others.
  • Own yourself and your behavior. Hold yourself and others accountable. Acknowledge that sometimes we are the ones who cause harm or discomfort. Maybe we tell a joke to be funny and it hits someone the wrong way. Learn how to receive that kind of feedback with empathy and not defensiveness.

The final step to enacting empathy is knowing that you don’t have to know everything! At the end of the day, nobody has all the answers, and it is important to acknowledge that we are all living and learning together. As an educator, I know that I can’t do everything or have every conversation I would want to have with a child- and neither can you. Do what you can, and remember that you are not alone. There are other trusted adults in your child’s life. In addition, REACH offers parent talks, professional development for teachers, resources, classroom work, and much more community and individual support. Reach out to us – together we will reach beyond domestic violence.

Keep up the good work!