Never Try Empathy With a Teenager

by doodaddy on July 10, 2007

I hung out with teenagers this weekend, voluntarily. (Normal ones this time, not the brainwashed kind.)

Park Buddy is hosting her 14-year old niece for a few days. She’s a sweet kid, kind to our babies, and, like most teenagers, she carries a bundle of churning anxiety just behind her eyeballs.

Boo Zoo

Boo Likes the Zoo

One of my many pre-baby jobs was training high school volunteers at a wildlife rehabilitation hospital. The experience convinced me that a little scut work around cute animals is good for kids, so I took B-niece and two of her teenaged pals up with me one night to prepare food and clean cages.

I wanted to let the kids to feed some animals with me, which should have been the moment they’d been waiting for. “We’re going into the cages!” I called using my excited voice, but they just sat in the office, eyeing their pizza longingly. I had to insist that they come feed the cute furries. Strange, that: after hours of chores, the kids had to be admonished to do something fun! But that’s teenagers all over: if you tell them to do something, it can’t be good, or at least not as good as pizza.

Today we took B-niece, her best friend, and the babies to the zoo. The day started with a lot of pother centering on that most classic of teen drama themes: who would give a ride to whom and when. That should be a cinch to resolve in San Francisco, a town replete with public transit options, but no such luck: the strife had carried on for TWELVE HOURS by the time I got there.

B-niece was worried that she was letting down her friend. And there’s no shame in that — I cry at commercials, after all. Things got a tad frantic, though, when B-niece drew her aunt into the drama to the point where Auntie Park Buddy could gruntle no longer.

Having helped a lot of teenagers through stressful moments myself, I totally get Park Buddy’s frustration at how poorly the kids handled a little transportation problem. And, for the same reason, I understood B-niece’s anxiety about disappointing her friend by not orchestrating a ride for her. And — this is where people think I’m crazy — I love being in that spot, the middleman between adult and teen, on both sides but taking no sides. I surf above the waves of tension. I don’t take on the problems but I try to understand them.

I’m good with older kids and teens, people tell me. And they ask, a lot, how I do it. There are a lot of answers: patience, kindness, listening to a lot of bubblegum pop music. But the core trait that makes my teen shtick work is expressing sympathy without submerging in empathy. Empathy — feeling with the kids — actually makes things worse.

Sadly, it’s exactly where most teenagers themselves will try to steer adults.

Still, it’s important to remember that other fantastic teen quality: resilience. No sooner had B-niece reunited with her friend (who’d managed to get a ride after all) that all was hugs and laughing and a brilliant day at the zoo.

All’s well that ends well.

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tagged as in crying,parenting,teenagers ·

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