The Empathy Deficit: Why don’t they care?

You hear it so often in the media it is the absolute cliché of teenhood. Although it could be applied by the public and the media to every age group who commit acts of anti-social behaviour, it is the youth perpetrators that get the response: “They just don’t seem to care. They don’t give a damn.” Oh, and “scum” often gets thrown in there too for good measure.

And it’s not just teens that commit crime that evoke this response from adults. Teens at home or school get a similar response from their parents and teachers too. “He/she just doesn’t care about the effect that their behaviour has on the rest of us. What I am supposed to do when they just don’t care about anyone other than themselves?”

So is there something in this? Well obviously yes. Speak to any teen with challenging behaviour and it is very true, they more often than not do not seem to care. They seem to lack the ability to consider others and to view their actions from the perspective of the people on the receiving end. In criminal justice, this is often termed a lack of victim awareness, and in more general terms is often referred to as a lack of empathy- an understanding of another’s situation, feelings, and motives.

Whether criminal or not, when someone is on the receiving end of anti-social behaviour, they are a victim of it. In trying to turn the behaviour around, making teens more aware or more empathic/empathetic of the needs and feelings of their victims is a key component.

But why are they like this? And how on earth do you try to get them to learn the importance and vital responsibility of considering others needs and feelings as well as their own?

In this first post of two, we will look at why some teens seem to have an empathy deficit and consequently find it particularly difficult to consider the detrimental consequences of their actions on others. In the next post we will then explore how to actually work with these limitations and practically try to teach the vital skill of empathy so that they can be more considerate of others’ needs, leading to an improvement in behaviour- a win for everyone else and a win for them.

So why is it so difficult to get some teens to genuinely consider others?

Here is a list of the top reasons, from my experience, of why some teens don’t seem to care. Not all will apply to all teens, so as always, it’s about working out which apply for the individual teen and then, as will be discussed in the next post, devising a strategy to address the issue, informed by this information.

  • Put simply, teens in general often do not reflect on how their actions affect them, let alone others. It’s not a thought process that comes particularly naturally.
  • Teens live very much in the moment, in the rush of their emotions, be it a buzz or a rage. They are so caught up with how they feel now that how others feel, then and later, does not often enter their heads.
  • Even when most people would stop and reflect later, teens are often off doing their next thing, so don’t allow confused teenthemselves this time. This is why they can repeat the same damaging behaviour, for themselves and others. It just doesn’t occur to them to do anything else.
  • Many teens do not know how they feel about a great deal of things, or how to express it. Consequently to ask them to put themselves in someone else’s shoes can be a difficult ask.
  • Some teens’ inability to accurately read body language, interpret facial expression and tone of voice means that they have little grasp of what other people feel, particularly when in a situation where they are caught up in their own emotion, or where their behaviour renders the victim speechless or submissive.

    For some this inability is purely a result of the way that teenage brains function. Research has shown that teenagers brains function significantly differently to adults and they use different parts of the brain to identify emotions, and they often misinterpret.

    It might also be that a teen is unable to interpret facial expression and body language because they have an autism spectrum disorder. This disorder also makes imaginative work, such as imagining how actions might affect others very difficult. (For more on this I highly recommend reading this post on empathy, written by a guy on the autistic spectrum).

  • For some teens, not caring about others is a basic dog-eat-dog survival instinct that they have had to adopt for themselves, or have learned from the significant adults in their lives.

    When daily life is a real challenge, or perceived to be such, the tendency is to focus on the self and not be concerned with others. Resources must be gathered- food, money, and clothing – and reserves of things like emotional and physical energy must be maximised, to weather the ‘winter’. Personal needs override the needs of others- it’s a matter of survival.

    However, the problem arises when this perfectly logical understandable drive to survive and of looking out for ourselves or ‘our own’ becomes a mindset and influences behaviour where an extreme self-preservation survival instinct is not required. It can lead to the internal justification of unjustifiable behaviour. For example, the mindset of “We don’t have much money for things, sometimes including food”, leads to a justification of shoplifting some designer sports gear (even when they do have enough money for basic necessities) because “I can’t afford it”.

  • Teens (and adults too) like to believe things that will justify their behaviour and minimise, in their own minds, the effects on others. They will suck up any excuses they hear like a vacuum cleaner. So they will latch onto things like it being okay to steal someone’s car because the insurance will pay for it, or that it’s okay to punch someone in the face because they deserved it, or that it’s okay to spread a malicious rumour about someone or post a nasty comment on Facebook because it was only meant as a joke.
  • When we all do things that we know deep-down are wrong, there is an incredible urge to do something that will enable us to live with ourselves, to have internal peace. And due to the fact that there is usually a hell of a lot whirling around in the heads of teens, the sooner they can get rid of that uncomfortable feeling the better. The choice then is to ‘fess up and face the wrong and endeavour not to do it again, or to bury the uncomfortable feeling with spurious justifications and minimisations of the behaviour- it wasn’t so bad was it? Plus, it takes less time and requires less reflection to opt for justifying and minimising and we all know how fast teen life runs.
  • teen girls friendsTo teens, friends are the beginning, the middle and the end of everything. If their friends are also involved in negative behaviour, they will oil each other’s excuse machines. Put a group of teens together and they could convince each other that cats bark. If enough of them say it and agree with it, it must be true, right?
  • With successful justifications and minimisations of the impact on others, behaviour becomes highly repeatable. If they personally gain something from their behaviour, be it materially, power, control or a buzz then they will look to be able to do it again and justifications and minimisations enable them to do this without a sense of guilt.
  • By avoiding the consideration of others needs, they avoid having to take responsibility for their actions. By taking responsibility there is at least the tiniest possibility of having to change. When negative behaviours are actually a teen’s coping mechanism, such as lashing out at others to keep them from discovering their internal pain,they will avoid having to make the change. That is scary. So they’ll use their ignoring of the impact of their behaviour on others, or minimsations and justifications of their behaviour to shore up their coping strategy, come what may. They are also comfortable with their current approach, it is nice and predictable, so putting their need for some sort of stability will come before consideration of anyone else.
  • Some teens have learned not to care, and in the worst cases, have never learned to care. For the most disengaged, challenging teens, the paradox is that they have often learned through experience that victims of antisocial behaviour don’t really matter. And why? Because when they were victims of abuse or neglect, the perpetrator never cared about their needs, about their feelings. So why should they care about anyone else’s needs? Rather than ‘do as you would be done by’, it’s ‘do as I was done by’.

    So when they are acting out their unresolved, confused emotions, they genuinely don’t care how they affect others. Their number one priority is often engaging in a behaviour that gets them what they want, or meets a deep-down unmet need. They might be expressing their anger at a personal experience by lashing out at others, or expressing a desire to forget themselves for a while by getting a buzz from illicit substances and committing crime to feed the habit, or making themselves feel big for a moment rather than the usual smallness by robbing a school kid.

    And this was exactly what was done to them. However they were used and or abused, was about their victimiser meeting their needs by using, abusing or neglecting them. At such a formative time, this lays down deep roots in their minds and can often end up with them acquiring the traits of their abuser because they don’t know any different.

So there is a whole myriad of reasons why teens find it hard to consider the needs of others in addition to their own. Understanding that it often does not come particularly easily helps us, as workers or parents, to be more patient and understanding in addressing this issue and to take an individualised approach in helping them develop the vital social skill of empathy.

While any form of anti-social behaviour that results in anyone being victimised cannot be excused with the reasons above, tackling the issue from a place of understanding will help teens to engage with you on the issue and to bring about the necessary change. So what I’m basically saying is that we need to ensure we are not operating with an empathy deficit when dealing with theirs.

In the next post, It’s all in the shoes: empathy, victim awareness & the distance from action to impact I explore how to practically help teens to develop empathy.

Footnotes:

– I diplomatically include both ’empathic’ & ’empathetic’ as some people hate the use of ’empathetic’, although it is popularly used.
– I wish to emphasise that not all teens are lacking in empathy, in fact I have met many who are massively aware of the feelings and needs of others and are a lesson to us all.

Anger management not working?

7 comments On The Empathy Deficit: Why don’t they care?

  • Excellent overview of this. It explains some of the attitudes of my 10-year-old grandson.

    Lon

  • Thanks to Lon for sharing the post

    one point – your explainations of the behavior are not excuses for behavior. Most teens who are unconditionally accepted and live in an environment where problems are solved not by giving sanctions but by collaboratively solving problems will admit that their behavior is unacceptable. Explainations , not being excuses does not mean sanctions. It means the teen needs to partipate in solving the problem in a durable way and repairing the past

  • Great post. Too many people think that teens are being difficult just because it is the “in thing” to do. They don’t realize that many teenagers were never taught or have never experienced how to actually care and reflect on their actions. In some of my videos, I discuss reasons that some teens bully others and why it isn’t always reported. The thought processes of teens mentioned in this post also help people understand how the “I don’t care” philosophy can become dangerous. GREAT BLOG!

  • I am a teen and I dont care on the outside because I was always a child who cared but that caused me to be taken advantage of, whether by peers or family in some cases. I dont care for many others because no one cared for me. I would cry and be made a joke out of or i would be forgotten on birthdays. I know i need to change but what would be the point? The more things change, the more they stay the same.

  • I’m sure all my readers will agree that this is a valuable comment that helps us to understand. I have privately responded to this young person.

  • Calling ‘K’. My email didn’t get to you, it bounced back. Please go to the ‘Contact Me’ page and update your email address so that I can resend it. I really want to connect with you!

  • Great article. My eldest went through a very definite non caring phase. although I expressed my feelings about it it’s also so important not to push away your teenager -they need so much love and nurturing through this difficult phase even though they make you want to scream!
    Dont forget to hug your teen – hugging is free and isn’t a commodity that should be traded. But it can make a big difference

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