Empathy in the Third Plane

Sep 21, 2018 | Adolescence, For Parents, For Teachers, Theory, Third Plane | 0 comments

By the time learners reach adolescence, their ability to take on the perspective of another person is well-developed. When you add this to the emerging sense of their own identities and their strong commitment to social justice, the Third Plane is an ideal opportunity to see empathy at work.

Except that we don't look for it all that often.

Except that we are so fixated on teenagers' choice of dress or hair or music that we forget that, even these, can we evidence of their empathetic spirits.

Teen's self-awareness and self-consciousness can sometimes look like they're unconcerned with other people. Quite the opposite. This is a time when learners are so attentive to the responses from others that they can seem to carry a cloak of outsiderness, a self-separation that reflects a deep fear that they may not fit in anymore.

The counterbalance to outsidering is inclusion. If your teen seems intent on dressing or behaving in a way that distances themselves from the group, the balance for that is to up the love, up the support, and up the acceptance. Teens deserve to know that they will be loved no matter what, that there will be a place for them in your family and your community in all their distinctness. Look beyond the haircut and make more eye contact. Ask your teen to tell you about the things that are important to them, and then listen. Ask more questions. Ask for more details. Caregivers can sometimes feel like their teens are pulling away. They are. That's ok. Be careful not to disappear into the background as they move farther from you. They need to know where you are and they will need, more often than you might expect but rarely when you're expecting it, to know where you are.

This is a perfect time, developmentally, to talk with teens about being an active bystander, about complicity and about moral courage. They will see people they care about being hurt. They will see people they care about hurting others. And they will, by the nature of this time of their development, feel pressured to remain passive in fear of being excluded from the group, especially when the powerful voices in that group are maintaining their power through intimidation or mean spiritedness. Work with their empathy and name the things they may be struggling with. "It can be hard to be a friend to someone who's being picked on. I think sometimes people are afraid that they'll get picked on, too." Let your home space be a place within which teens can struggle through some of hard conversations. You can talk about the ways in which good people can make hurtful choices, "Happy people don't hurt people," and create space for them to think together about the ways in which their worlds suddenly seem much higher-stake and much much more complicated.

Again, you can't take these challenges away from adolescents, but you can affirm for them that they have a safe landing place, a space within which they can talk without judgment, and be loved even on their least lovable days. Adolescence is a liminal time- a time when learners are no longer what they have been and not yet what they are becoming- but it is real and powerful and important to the people who are experiencing it. Try not to dismiss that experience as, "just a stage." Instead, remind them (and yourself) that we are all learning and changing and struggling all of the time. We can't change the changing, but we don't have to do it alone.

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