It’s all in the shoes: empathy, victim awareness & the distance from action to impact

old footwear

In the previous post we looked at the myriad reasons why teens often seem to have an empathy deficit- they just don’t seem to care how their behaviour affects others. Whichever reason or reasons outlined in that post apply to a particular teen, there is an underlying need to help them make up the distance between their actions and the impact it has on others.

This post will focus on exploring how we can practically help them make that journey, not just towards a greater understanding of others and how their behaviour affects them, but towards a place where their behaviour improves also. The answers are all in the shoes.

1. Help them to wear their own victim shoes (Self-connection)

One of the keys to getting them to consider others feelings is to help them reflect on their own victim experiences first. This can seem massively counter-intuitive. You get them to think of others by getting them to think about themselves? Isn’t their self-absorption the problem? Won’t I just feed it?

When trying to change anything with a teen (or anyone for that matter) the best way in, in my experience, is to start from the exact point where they are at. What you say then becomes very relevant and very interesting to them, they feel a connection with you, that you ‘get them’. Your potential to influence them consequently exponentially increases.

The idea is that if you get them to think about themselves, and to assess why they care about what other people do to them, they will begin to see that they need to care about what they do to others. Meet them where they are at, and you’ll be better able to lead them to where you want them to be.

So if they steal, get them to think about when someone has taken something from them. If they are violent, get them to think about when someone was aggressive or violent to them. If they are disruptive at school or at home with their larking about, get them to think about when they wanted to achieve something and other people got in the way of them doing that. Their own victim experience doesn’t have to be as serious as when they victimised someone, just a situation where similar feelings would be aroused.

In essence, the mental process you are teaching them by doing this, is how to apply their own experiences to help them put themselves in the shoes of another person. And this has enormous preventative power. Behaviour that victimises others usually comes from a place of extreme depersonalisation. The injured party (physically, emotionally or materially harmed) is turned into an inanimate object without feelings. This is particularly acute in the case of corporate victims (e.g. in shoplifting). If you help them find points of connection between themselves and their victims (past or potential future) then their ability to minimise the effects of their actions is severely curtailed and they are way less likely to persist in their negative behaviour.

Engaging in this process will also help those who have been the victims of serious abuse and neglect themselves, work through their feelings that no-one cared about their feelings as a victim when they were being abused. Where you know that abuse has taken place, it may be particularly useful to first talk in general terms about what it feels like to be a victim, without particular reference to their negative victimising behaviours. Show them that you care that they were a victim and that you are interested in what they have to say. Show them that victim’s feelings matter. Once you have done this then they will be far more receptive to considering the victims of their behaviour and to entertaining the idea that their feelings matter too.

And with this comes the introduction of the idea that they might be locked into a victim-victimiser cycle- that their acting out as result of being victimised, leads them to victimise others. This is often the great ‘lights-on’ moment for so many abused teens. They begin to understand the source of their behaviour better and realise that they don’t have to continue being victimised or continue to victimise others. They experience an empowerment surge as it dawns on them that they have the power to break the cycle. They subsequently find themselves in a mental space where they are no longer able to use their past experience as an excuse for their current negative behaviour. Instead their past experience becomes a reason to stop that behaviour.

Whether coming from a place of abuse or not, in helping teens wear their own victim shoes, you are teaching them how to draw on their own experience in order to help them wear the shoes of others- to empathise.

2. Take those shoes for a walk (The Ripple Effect)

So you’ve at least got them looking at the victim’s shoes. The next step is to take them for a walk in them and to maybe realise that it is most likely that there is more than one pair of victim shoes they need to try on.

When considering how their actions affect others, it is so easy for the teen, and for you, their worker or parent, to miss the bigger picture. The victim of the assault is the person who has now got a black-eye right? Well yes, but so too is the family of the black-eye guy, the family of the teen, the rest of the community (be it school or local community) who are shaken by the assault. Do you see what I mean?

One great way of ensuring you and the teen get the whole picture is to use a Ripple Effect chart. It makes it very clear to see everyone who is affected by a behaviour and the impact on them physically, emotionally/psychologically and financially. You can even create a life size chart on the ground with some chalk and get the young person to actually stand in each segment and speak as if they are the people in question.

For some, thinking of the impact of their behaviour on themselves and others is phenomenally difficult as they do deep down have a profound sense of shame. They may be desperately trying to avoid facing this because they actually would like to continue with their negative behaviour and they know acknowledging the effects on others will force them to change, and they really don’t want to. Or it might just be that they are afraid of the emotional floodgates opening and the thought of that is too dreadful and damaging to their hard-boy or girl image.

In these cases it can often be useful to look at third-person scenarios and victims first, to ease them into this way of thinking. Time and time again I have been able to engage disengaged teens with this method- it’s far less intimidating and stressful than placing them in the spotlight from the start. Trust can be built and the mental juices start to flow. So look at some clips from popular teen soaps, movies or even news items and complete the ripple effect chart for those scenarios.

The BBC ‘Our Crimes’ series has a wealth of material for exploration in relation to youth crime. Primarily focusing on how teens have recorded their crimes and then used social media to share their exploits, it also explores the effect of these crimes on the victims. The series has covered material such as robbery, rioting, car crime and violent crime. All of the episodes are still available to watch on BBC Iplayer and some are available on YouTube.

The ripple effect process is a great pill to the tendency to minimise the consequences of their behaviour or to come up with spurious justifications like “the insurance will cover it”, or “it didn’t really bother them, so it doesn’t matter”. It forces them to go deeper than one-liner brush-off statements and to think it all through.

Restorative justice conferencing is another commonly used and highly effective method of really getting teens to consider those they have harmed and to take responsibility for their actions. This is a process whereby those harmed by crime or conflict meet with those responsible for the harm, enabling everyone affected by a particular incident to play a part in repairing the harm and finding a positive way forward. It is a process increasingly being used in criminal justice, schools, care homes and the wider community and has been shown to reduce re-offending.

3. Show them that we all are all shoes in a shoe shop (the necessity and power of reciprocity)

A natural corollary of looking into their own victim experiences and considering the effects of their actions on others is that they begin to view actions and consequences not in individualistic selfish terms but on larger scale, outward looking, community terms.

The next step is then to demonstrate that we are all in this thing called life together, whether we want to be or not. The best way to make it work for everyone, individually and together is to look out for one another and not just ourselves. It might seem obvious, but we are more alone and more vulnerable in isolation. If we are wholly individualistic we descend into dog-eat-dog-ism which means that we constantly have to watch our backs.

This often does not occur to teens. They are so caught up in the short-term personal gain of what they are doing, that they don’t see the bigger picture of how their lack of care for others affects them detrimentally in the long run.

It is consequently vital that we teach our teens the importance of reciprocity- that if they want people to care about what happens to them, then they need to care about what happens to others. This is often framed in the terms of ‘rights’ and ‘responsibilities’- that if you have the right not to be assaulted, that you then have the responsibility to refrain from doing it to others. Do as you would be done by, or don’t do what you don’t want to happen to you.

This process can be as simple as getting a sheet of paper, dividing it into two columns and writing down in one column what rights they have, or desires they have for themselves e.g. a desire to feel safe, and on the other side writing down the associated responsibilities e.g. don’t make others feel unsafe. It sounds almost monotonous and obvious, but sometimes it takes writing down the seemingly obvious for the message to get through.

You can then look at what desires or rights of their victims were violated by their behaviour. e.g. “When I called Ms Foster a fat whore I violated her right and desire to be treated with respect”. For those who have been badly victimised you can also use this exercise to see how their rights/desires for themselves were violated e.g. “When my Mother repeatedly called me useless she violated my right / desire to feel loved, to feel wanted, to feel like I could be someone. A third column can then be added to express their responsibilities in light of the violation of their rights, a column that expresses their commitment to break the victimised-victimiser cycle. So for the above, the responsibility would then be “to make sure that I don’t make other people feel useless, unloved and unwanted…”

In my experience, such a straightforward exercise like this can have profound effects. They realise their power as an individual to make positive changes in their own lives and in the lives of others. I believe that everyone at their core craves to feel that they matter and that they can make a difference and by doing this exercise they see that even as one person, they have the ability to be a force for good. For those stuck in negative behaviour cycles, this can be a life-changing realisation and can be the quiet bulldozer that breaks them out of those cycles.

4. Show them how to tell the difference between shoes (reading emotion prompters)

Shoes come in all shapes, colours and sizes, some with Velcro, some with laces, some with zips and so on it goes. In general, adults find it pretty easy to tell the difference between shoes, like between a ladies high-heel shoe and a man’s black work shoe (otherwise there could be some quite hilarious results in the morning).

There are as many shoes as there are human emotions and as many shoes as there are associated expressions on faces, body postures and tone of voice.
Imagine if you could not tell the difference between your shoes- where the difference between a black high-heel and a mens black shoe were difficult to discern.

For many teens, telling the difference between emotions can be as difficult as that. It might be that they are on the autistic spectrum or just that they find reading facial expressions, body language and tone of voice difficult. They may even have trained themselves to shut down their own emotions and their ability to read others emotions as a means of self-preservation.

It then becomes a challenge for them to alter their behaviour in response to the bodily expressed emotions of others. While it might appear that they just don’t care how the victim feels, it might just be that they have missed out on the physical prompts and don’t realise the effect that their actions are having on the other person. For example, when getting angry and shouting they might fail to read the prompts that the other person is upset and that they are scared. While these prompts don’t stop everyone even when they consciously see them, for most they do have a behaviour curtailing effect. Without the ability to read this however, this fundamental element of behavioural control is lost.

It is consequently vital that they are given the opportunity to improve those skills. It can prevent them from inflicting harm on others, and potentially putting themselves in harms way.

This can be achieved in several ways. The most dynamic and interesting resources I have found include:

The Facial Expressions Game

This game allows a player to experiment with the different effects of moving separate facial parts. In teaching someone how a face conveys emotion, you may choose to isolate one part, such as turning brows down to indicate disapproval, or up for surprise.

Interpersonal Communication- Emotions short film

This consists of six minutes worth of picture and video examples of the six key emotions that are a part of interpersonal communication- joy, surprise, anger, disgust, sadness, fear. This is a far more interesting dynamic way to analyse facial expressions and the emotions attached than just looking at facial emotion photocards.

Watch an episode of their favourite TV soap or drama.

In the UK, I usually find Hollyoaks usually works well (click on link above to go to episodes on YouTube). After each scene, pause for a few minutes and discuss the emotions expressed, and what clues there were that led them to this conclusion- facial, body pose, tone of voice.

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So the answer to getting teens to cover the distance from their behaviour to the impact site is all in the shoes. If we get them to walk in their own victim shoes, get them to walk in others, show them that we are all a community of shoes and how to tell the difference between them, then the journey becomes all the easier. It benefits society as a whole and it benefits them. They end up feeling more engaged with the world, less alone and better able to connect positively with it. When involved in the process, the victims of their behaviour also feel more empowered, less fearful and better connected too. It’s a liberating process for all and a walk worth taking.


  • http://allankatz-parentingislearning.blogspot.com Allan Katz

    Thanks for the post. A similar approach from the CPS – collaborative problem solving approach by Ross Greene. The starting point is anon-judgmental reassurance that we are not mad with the teen bit just what his input as to his perspectives and concerns. When we focus on undestanding the teen, helping him feel understood , putting his concerns on the table he is more likely to hear our concerns and perspectives. When we then give him a vision for the future , address his needs for autonomy, competence and relatedness he becomes more powerful and in a new position to then deal with the past – first we need to give him a future – and be empathis and engage in the moral act of restitution in an autonomous way

    Also the practice of mindful awareness – attention with compassion helps

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