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Working with Adolescents: Supporting Kindness as a Goal in Therapy

As counselors, we are in a unique position to serve as kindness role models for the adolescents and families we work with—there are opportunities to do so every day. We define kindness as paying attention, showing patience, communicating respectfully, and showing compassion and concern for others. As clinicians, we are all aware of the importance of these powerful elements in the treatment process. What we might not be as conscious of is our ability to model this for our adolescent clients and encourage them to engage in kindness activities that can positively impact their mental health. Additionally, we can model kindness for parents—both in our interactions with them and in the way we interact with their children—as a way to help them nurture kinder, more empathic adolescents. Research clearly supports the notion that we are hardwired for kindness and nurturing this quality from the time our children are very young is ideal (Pfaff, 2015). Whether or not that has happened, it is never too late to focus on kindness.

Modeling Kindness

In order to model kindness, we have to be open to it ourselves. Before each client interaction, it can be helpful to take a moment to center ourselves. Some of us find it useful to take a few deep breaths, while others may do a brief meditation. Even looking at a favorite photograph can serve this purpose—find what works for you. This practice helps us to be open and ready to focus on whatever our clients bring to the session.

Something as basic as how we greet our clients can model respectful communication. Pay attention to nonverbal and verbal communication in those initial moments. If clients come in agitated, we have an opportunity to model how to engage in an empathic and compassionate way without showing that we are overly influenced by their emotions. Alternatively, if adolescents come in reluctantly, we can still convey warmth and interest without judgement. Creating an atmosphere of acceptance gives clients the belief that whatever they bring to the session is okay.

Since many of the adolescents and families we work with may not be aware of the link between kindness and happiness, we as clinicians can explore this with them both by modeling kindness and coaching them through their interactions within and outside of their families. Over the past thirty years there has been much research with adults linking kindness, happiness, gratitude, and overall physical and mental well-being (Seligman, Steen, Park, & Peterson, 2005). Additionally, people who regularly engage in acts of kindness are more likely to find meaning in their lives (Van Tongeren, Green, Davis, Hook, & Hulsey, 2015).

A pioneering study of nine- to eleven-year-olds who regularly engaged in acts of kindness were found to be more inclusive, more socially accepted, and less likely to bully others as teenagers as well as to have improved academic performance (Layous, Nelson, Oberle, Schonert-Reichl, & Lyubomirsky, 2012). This study emphasizes the positive impact of practicing kindness on preadolescents. We share this as a reminder for when working with younger children or siblings of adolescents in treatment, that kindness is vital and may improve family dynamics.

Fostering Empathy

There are several recent studies that point to a decline in empathy and growing social isolation in college-age students (Bonnette, 2014). One of the ways this is evident is the inability to read nonverbal communication. Given that so many adolescents are engaged in much of their social interactions online rather than face to face, they have not had the opportunity to practice seeing peers’ facial expressions and reactions when engaged in conversation. As a result, we see a deterioration in the ability to take other people’s perspectives. One way we can help teach this skill within the context of treatment is by being particularly expressive ourselves and asking our adolescent clients how they think we are feeling or the impact their words have on us based on our facial expressions and posture. This can also be a powerful tool within a family session. After some practice with these adolescents, we can ask that they employ this technique when their parents are in the room.

Research shows that the decline in reading among college-age students and adults over the past fifteen years may provide a link to the concurrent decline in empathy (Zaki, 2011). This is important because one of the skills we hone when reading literary fiction is the ability to imagine how other people are feeling (Kidd & Castano, 2013). So another intervention we might consider is encouraging our teenage clients to read literary fiction, as doing so can help them see another’s perspective, which helps enhance empathy. Asking what clients are reading in school and using that familiar reference for talking about perspective taking may be helpful at the start of this intervention.

While communicating online, adolescents often feel anonymous and therefore empowered to say things they might not otherwise say. With this distance, there is less of a desire for real connection to other people. Adolescents seem to be lonelier and more isolated because they are engaged in “relationships” in which they are comparing themselves to people who have “perfect” lives. They feel pressured to keep up rather than present their own reality. Within this forum, adolescents struggle to form relationships that are real. As we know, adolescence is a time when peer connection and acceptance is very important. One way to help adolescents use social media for good—and to feel better about themselves in the process—is to guide them to find others who use their interests or hobbies in a positive way. Given this fact, we can help them mediate the potentially damaging effects of social media with opportunities to engage and connect with teens doing good online as well as in real life. For adolescents who feel isolated or marginalized in their school communities, finding like-minded teens through online communities can provide opportunities for peer connection and acceptance.

Dr. Sara Konrath, a prominent psychologist who studies empathy, states that “there is a lot of research showing that our empathy scores can change based on just being trained to be more empathetic: like having programs or classes or experiences or interacting with really empathic mentors” (Lewis & Konrath, 2013). This provides much hope for the impact we can have as “empathic mentors” within therapy and by encouraging our adolescent clients to engage in activities that will enhance empathy. Two such examples are service learning and volunteer programs. While these activities are typically focused on engaging students in service to the larger community, they do provide opportunities for students to engage in acts of kindness (i.e., exercising their “kindness muscle,” that may be dormant). It might be worthwhile to explore these options when working with adolescents who are not volunteering or participating in a service-learning program.

Service Learning and Volunteering

Research shows many benefits to service learning including, “enhanced-self efficacy and self-esteem, more positive attitudes toward school and education, an increase in positive attitudes and behaviors related to community involvement, and gains in social skills relating to leadership and empathy” (Atkins & Salzhauer, 2018). Teens say some of the reasons they volunteer are because they feel compassion for people in need, they want to expand their social circle, and they want to enhance their social awareness. Molly Latham, a researcher in the field of volunteerism, found that teens who volunteer also cite the benefits as “learning to respect others; learning to be helpful and kind; learning to understand people who are different; developing leadership skills; becoming more patient; and better understanding of citizenship” (2003). These benefits would likely be valuable to any teens who are struggling to become engaged in healthier ways. Another benefit to teens who volunteer, which may resonate with parents, is the reduction in destructive behavior. Latham also found that youth who “volunteer one hour per week are 50 percent less likely to abuse alcohol, cigarettes, become pregnant, or engage in other destructive behavior” (2003).

Another way to volunteer is as a family. For most families, volunteering together reinforces family values and many parents say they feel they are leaving a legacy by doing so. Additionally, family volunteering can bring families closer and allow each family member to see different (and often positive) sides of each other, which can be particularly beneficial when families are struggling to get along. Teens who volunteer with their families say they respect and appreciate their parents more when they see how much they do for the community (Littlepage, Obergfell & Zanin, 2003).

Acts of Kindness

While we can only encourage adolescent clients to get involved with volunteer or service-learning programs outside of treatment, counting kindnesses is a simple yet effective intervention that can be done within the treatment. In a study with college-age participants, researchers Otake, Shimai, Tanaka-Matsumi, Otsui, and Fredrickson “asked participants to become more aware of their own kind behavior toward other people every day for one week. Participants were asked to keep track of each and every act of kindness they performed and to report the daily number of these acts” (2006). Among the results was the important finding of “the close association between kindness and happiness in everyday life. Simply by counting acts of kindness for one week, people appear to have become happier and more grateful” (Otake et al., 2006). To clarify, these acts of kindness can be very small, everyday things that may even seem insignificant to a teenager. Our job is to point them out. Some examples are holding the door for someone, saying hello to another person, or picking something up for the person who dropped it. By guiding clients to keep track of these small kindnesses, and larger ones if they occur, they will see that engaging in acts of kindness can help them feel happier. In turn, they will want to do more acts of kindness. Otake and colleagues note that

. . . positive emotions may lead people to make and solidify new bonds and to develop optimism and senses of identity and goal orientation. Accordingly, if people experience positive emotions and optimal social conditions as a result of their own kindness, an upward spiral may be created. That an intervention as simple as counting acts of kindness had demonstrative effects suggests that this upward spiral may be created quite easily (2006).

Loving-kindness

Another effective intervention to help adolescents is a simple loving-kindness meditation. Research shows that those who practicing loving-kindness meditation once per week can increase joy, gratitude, hope, and other positive emotions as well as a sense of mastery over their lives and improvement in the quality of their relationships. Practicing this meditation can help adolescents feel better in their daily lives and improve their interactions with other people (Fredrickson, Cohn, Coffey, Pek, & Finkel, 2008). We have included a simple sample script in the image below. There are other variations readily available if this particular script does not resonate with you or the adolescents you are working with. Remind your clients that regular practice is important to feel the benefits.

 

Helping Families

Although the focus of work may be with adolescents, we also want to provide suggestions for working with parents and/or families as a whole. Just as we need to prepare ourselves to be open with our clients, parents may need a reminder (and perhaps specific direction) to prepare themselves to be open to being kind to their children. When parents are stuck in patterns of interaction that have not yielded the “results” they want, they may feel defeated. We as therapists can coach parents in self-reflection exercises as a way to become more empathic and open toward themselves and ultimately their children. This can be a way to restore a sense of hope for parents and allow them to perceive and approach their children in a different way. The following questions can be addressed with parents in session or printed and given to them to work on at home. You will know what will work best with a particular family.

The first several questions are intended to understand how parents show kindness to themselves, which can be defined as “caring for yourself,” “taking time for yourself,” or “helping yourself feel calm,” etc.). If both parents are engaged in treatment, each parent should address the questions individually.

  • Assuming you believe it is important to “show kindness” to yourself, do you? Are you able to do so on a regular basis?
  • If no, what gets in the way? If yes, what are the ways you are or you strive to be kind to yourself?
  • How do you feel when you have the opportunity to be kind to yourself?

If both parents are engaged in treatment, a conversation about each of their answers and their individual approaches to their children on the topic of kindness may be instructive. For example, one may feel the other is too lenient or too harsh or just that they approach their children differently.

  • Think about when you were your child’s age. Do you remember your parents being kind to you? In what ways were they kind? How did that make you feel?
  • Think about a time your parent or parents were unkind to you. What did they do? How did that make you feel?
  • Now that you are a parent, where is kindness demonstrated in your family’s everyday life?
  • Where would you like to show kindness to your child, but feel that you cannot? What do you think is interfering?
  • Think of three times your child showed kindness to you. Can you recall how that made you feel?
  • Who else have you noticed your child being kind to? Have you acknowledged that kindness? If yes, how? If no, why not?
  • What are three situations in which you wish your child would show more kindness?
  • Now think about your broader family. As a parent, do you show more kindness to one child but not another (or show it differently)? Why do you think that is?
  • Where do you see room for more kindness in your family? What are three ways you can try to make that happen?

There are many reasons these self-reflection questions can be useful. First, they can provide us with insight into parents’ views on kindness and what enhances and interferes with the expression of kindness within their families. Second, this reflection provides parents with an objective opportunity to examine how their views on kindness affect their own parenting. Finally, the answers to these questions can give us insight into how to join with parents to validate negative feelings they may be having towards their children while helping them reframe what they want to say in ways their children will be more likely to hear.

After having parents complete these self-reflection questions, one exercise we can explore with them is asking, “Can you do this with your children?” Help parents create a list of kind moments they might engage in with their children, both in the course of daily life as well as in new situations. For example, sitting with your daughter while she plays a video game, asking to learn about what she is doing in the game at this moment or if your son is annoyed at having to go on an errand with you, thanking him for coming with you rather than commenting on his negative attitude.

As a parallel to asking parents to do some self-reflection, it is important to be aware of our own responses when faced with obstacles in working with particular parents. Perhaps we feel the style of interaction between parents provides a negative role model, or perhaps we feel that parents do not like or are not kind to their children, or that parents are not willing to take their children’s perspectives due to disappointment or anger. Whatever response we may experience, we want to be aware of it and keep it from interfering with treatment as much as possible.

Conclusion

Kindness may not be the first thing on our minds when working with adolescents. It can be difficult to focus on, for both teens and their parents, when there is so much negativity. That said, the benefits of kindness can be transformative for both parties. We encourage you to maintain a focus on kindness in the interventions you use within treatment. Part of this process may be helping adolescents articulate and explore interests while helping parents acknowledge and encourage them. Providing teens with opportunities to follow their passions—and notice and practice compassion and kindness towards themselves and others—can help them feel better and form healthy connections within their communities.

References

Atkins, D., & Salzhauer, A. (2018). The kindness advantage: Cultivating compassionate and connected children. Deerfield Beach, FL: HCI Books.

Bonnette, R. (2014). Rethinking technology’s impact on empathy. Retrieved from https://authorzilla.com/yeEDJ/rethinking-technology-39-s-impact-on-empathy-loyola-university.html

Fredrickson, B. L., Cohn, M. A., Coffey, K. A., Pek, J., & Finkel, S. M. (2008). Open hearts build lives: Positive emotions, induced through loving-kindness meditation, build consequential personal resources. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95(5), 1045–62.

Kidd, D. C., & Castano, E. (2013). Reading literary fiction improves theory of mind. Science, 342(6156), 377–80.

Latham, M. (2003). Young volunteers: The benefits of community service. Retrieved from https://www.unce.unr.edu/publications/files/cd/2003/fs0323.pdf

Layous, K., Nelson, S. K., Oberle, E., Schonert-Reichl, K. A., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2012). Kindness counts: Prompting prosocial behavior in preadolescents boosts peer acceptance and well-being. PLoS One, 7(12), e51380.

Lewis, D. (Interviewer) & Konrath, S. (Interviewee). (2013). Where’s your compassion? Generation Y and the new empathy deficit [Interview transcript]. Retrieved from http://upclose.unimelb.edu.au/episode/246-where-s-your-compassion-generation-y-and-new-empathy-deficit#transcription

Littlepage, L., Obergfell, E., & Zanin, G. (2003). Family volunteering: An exploratory study of the impact on families. Retrieved from
https://archives.iupui.edu/bitstream/handle/2450/438/31_03-C05_Family_Volunteering.pdf?sequence=1

Otake, K., Shimai, S., Tanaka-Matsumi, J., Otsui, K., Fredrickson, B. L. (2006). Happy people become happier through kindness: A counting kindnesses intervention. Journal of Happiness Studies, 7(3), 361–75.

Pfaff, D. W. (2015). The altruistic brain: How we are naturally good. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. The American Psychologist, 60(5), 410–21.

“The benefits of loving-kindness.” (n.d.). Retrieved from https://gozen.com/love

Van Tongeren, D. R., Green, J. D., Davis, D. E., Hook, J. N., & Hulsey, T. L. (2015). Prosociality enhances meaning in life. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 11(3), 1–12.

Zaki, J. (2011). What, me care? Young are less empathetic. Scientific American. Retrieved from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/what-me-care/

Dale Atkins, PhD, is a licensed psychologist with more than forty years of experience as a relationship expert focusing on families, wellness, managing stress, and living a balanced, meaningful life. Author of seven books and many chapters, articles, and journals for popular and professional audiences, Dr. Atkins is a featured speaker in the media and at conferences. She earned her BS from New York University, an MA from Teachers College at Columbia University, and a PhD from University of California at Los Angeles.

Amanda Salzhauer, MSW, has spent many years as a social worker in clinics and private practice which has given her a deep understanding of children, family. and community dynamics. In addition to her field experience, she has been a force for progress through her participation as a board member of several leading nonprofit organizations. She earned a BA from Dartmouth college and an MSW from New York University.