Using Empathy to Better Understand Others

Embracing Empathy in Tough Times

It felt amazing to roll around in the grass and have a water gun fight with my two-and-a-half-year-old niece this summer. I hadn’t seen her since November 2019, and she’s grown so much in that time. It made me feel like the end of the COVID-19 pandemic was in sight. Now, kids are returning to school, restaurants are open for business, concerts are happening, and some people are working in person again instead of remotely. Part of this return to normalcy is due to the safe and effective vaccines widely available for most of the U.S. population. I’m grateful to be vaccinated against COVID-19 because it reduces my concerns about potentially passing the disease on to my friends, family, or co-workers. It feels wonderful to see people face-to-face again after about a year and a half of phone calls, text messages, and video chats as our primary means of connecting.

Yet, with the spread of highly infectious variants and parts of the population still unvaccinated, like children under 12 years old, it’s still necessary to take other measures to protect ourselves and those around us. These include masking, hand-washing, and social distancing when possible. Understandably, some may grow tired of following these guidelines or frustrated by policies and mandates that seem to change from week to week. We witness this at school board meetings where tempers flare and see it across social media.

I don’t always agree with the arguments presented by those who have different opinions than me when it comes to masking or vaccination. However, I try to practice empathy and understanding rather than condemn those with different viewpoints than my own,. I carefully listen to friends and family and try to understand their perspectives prior to sharing from my background in public health. I work to put myself in their shoes. I know that they’re more likely to consider my position if I have empathy towards their thoughts and feelings than if I argue or condemn their perspective. It improves our chances of having a productive dialogue, rather than talking past each other. 

Empathy Thrives When Stress is Low

Practicing empathy in this way turns down the temperature of these conversations and creates a less stressful interaction. As a result, we can both more easily understand each other’s viewpoints. It becomes difficult to process another person’s feelings when we’re stressed because we’re preoccupied with decreasing our stress (this is the “fight or flight” response in action). 

...if adolescents reported feeling low levels of stress, frequent conversations about the pandemic were helpful in that they encouraged adolescents to engage in more health-protective behaviors over time.

Research now shows how important it is for parents to assess their teens’ stress levels when they’re having conversations about COVID-19. According to a recent study, teens are more likely to practice empathy and behaviors that can limit the spread of the disease when their stress is low. As lead study author Dr. Joanna Peplak explains, “…if adolescents reported feeling low levels of stress, frequent conversations about the pandemic were helpful in that they encouraged adolescents to engage in more health-protective behaviors over time.” These “health-protective behaviors” include hand-washing, social distancing, and mask-wearing.

On the other hand, frequent conversations about the pandemic when teens’ stress levels were high are linked to less empathy and a lower likelihood of using health-protective behaviors. Dr. Peplak goes on to say, “We advise parents to tend to their children’s wellbeing and be mindful not to overload them with messages about the pandemic, as this might lead teens to become unmotivated to engage in health-protective behaviors such as wearing masks, washing their hands often, and social distancing.”

Teens Follow Your Lead

We know that teens often respond in kind to their parent’s emotions and stress levels. In other words, if you’re frustrated and stressed while trying to talk to your teen, they may respond by being frustrated and stressed as well. One helpful thing parents can do is take some time to reduce their stress before talking about a stressful topic like the pandemic with teens. Do this by practicing some self-care — exercise, take a brief “instant vacation” with a good book or magazine, or take some deep breaths to collect yourself.  Your calmness will help keep your teen calm and result in a more productive conversation.

Role modeling remains one of the best ways for parents to influence their children’s behavior. If they see you wearing a mask, washing your hands, and being kind to others, they are more likely to follow suit. The same is true for self-care. When your teen sees you coping with stress in healthy ways, they are more likely to do the same when feeling overwhelmed. If your family needs other ideas for coping, check out our stress management plan.

The pandemic has been tough on everyone, and we’re not out of the woods yet. With a bit of kindness and empathy toward others, we can make the rest of the journey more tolerable. 

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About Andy Pool

Andrew Pool, Ph.D., M.Sc. is a Research Scientist at CPTC. He has a doctorate in Public Health with a concentration in Social and Behavioral Sciences from Temple University.

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