How to Teach Altruism and Empathy to our Tweens

The holidays are that time of year where love, hope, joy, peace and goodwill to all (empathy and altruism) are brought to the limelight. When it comes to being a parent of a tween or teen, sometimes these lessons are hard to teach.

Who doesn’t want their kid to show empathy and altruism to others instead of being a kid that believes it’s “all about me.” First of all, don’t believe in the hype that the younger generation – millennials and Gen Z – are the most selfish generations ever. Studies have shown that these stereotypes are simply not true. Some of the most caring and committed people who want to make a difference are, in fact in those two age groups. But how do you transfer that desire to care for others to the kids that you’re raising?

Before we begin, it’s important to understand the differences between empathy and altruism. Empathy is the feeling of compassion that we get when we see humans or animals being mistreated or hurt. Altruism is when we see that hurting person drop their books and we bend down to help them pick it up. It is empathy in action. We want our tweens to feel compassion and have the courage and willingness to step in and help others when needed.

As your tweens enter junior high or middle school, they start to separate from parents and other authority figures and invest more in their friendships and learning their own identity. For some, that means focusing too narrowly on their own personal achievements and for others, on being generous. We’re experiencing an unprecedented decline in empathy and altruism, and cannot afford to discourage kindness, but we also need to teach tweens about reciprocity, healthy boundaries, and limits to generosity.


Here are some ways parents and educators can teach tweens how to give to others without sacrificing themselves:

 1.   Help them understand their own feelings first.

How many times on a flight have you heard in the safety briefing, “Put on your oxygen mask first before putting on your child’s oxygen mask.” Advice like this can help you as parents as your child learns empathy. From a young age, you will want to teach your kids how to deal with their own emotions first. If they can understand their own emotions, it makes it easier for them to respond to the feelings of others as well. 

As your kids begin to gain independence and realize that they can deal with their fears and frustrations, it can help them see others’ emotions more objectively. For example, let’s say your 11-year-old son has a friend whose father works in the military. Understandably, your son’s friend would feel sad about his dad’s absence. That could be a time to talk to your child by asking him, “What do you think your friend is feeling right now? Why do you think he may be upset?”

Help your tweens get in touch with their feelings as if they were in the same situation as it is a way for him to develop empathy for his friend. The next step would be to also ask, “What do you think we could do to be of help to your friend right now?” Encourage your child to come up with several things they may be able to do to help his friend.  

  1.   Honour their need for independence

Tweens may be open to helping people, but then shut down or rebel if an adult figure tries to dictate their behaviour. It can be incredibly hard to watch your child experience tough failures, but the key is not to shield them but to make sense of it. Build an environment that is safe for your tweens to know they can be who they are and admit difficulties without negative consequences or judgement.

To respect their desire for autonomy, point out when a friend confuses emotional support with friendship, but don’t insist that they drop that friend. Highlight red flags, such as feeling pressure to keep a secret, dreading someone’s call or feeling physically worn out. Say, “That sounds really tiring. How are you managing this? How are you recharging? What do you want to see change?” 

  1.       Challenge gender stereotypes

There is the stereotype that girls are responsible for emotional labour and that “real men” suppress their feelings however, it is up to the parents to challenge the stereotype and for them to understand that all emotions or feelings are important.  

  1.   Applaud your tweens for taking small steps.

Tweens may take on the role of peacekeeper, mediator or advisor, but then feel “stuck” in that role. Since tweens operate in complex networks, they have less autonomy and mobility in their social lives than adults do. For example, one bold act will not effectively shift firmly established dynamics. Your tween could decide to stop sitting with a specific friend at lunch but then get assigned to the same group project as them. It will take time and courage to make a difference, but applaud your tween for making small changes.

  1.   Teach them to spot “contagious” emotions.

There is research that shows that moods and emotions are contagious and this is especially true for middle schoolers. For example, if your tween is feeling overwhelmed or feeling scared, chances are their friends are feeling the same way too. Have them understand and develop healthy relationships and strike a balance between compassion for others and compassions for themselves. 

  1.   Brainstorm solutions together

Remind your tween that they don’t have to solve everyone’s problems to show empathy. Remind them that helping should be a shared responsibility. When kids understand that empathy is a two-way street, they’re less likely to give to someone who consistently takes advantage of them.

  1.   Have the courage to be compassionate.

There are so many ways we could talk about encouraging empathy and altruism. Studies have shown that it is essential to children of all ages. Things like getting your child a pet to take care of, serving at a food kitchen, or volunteering, can teach our children empathy. One of the strongest predictor of empathetic and courageous behaviour is when individuals grow up in a family that prioritizes compassion and caring for others. With that being said, you (the parents) are taking the right steps!

It is possible to teach our children how to show empathy and altruism, even in today’s world. We want our children to feel compassion and have the courage and willingness to step in and help others. If we are intentional as parents in demonstrating empathy and altruism, our tweens will take notice. Here's to the next generation of change makers!

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