Three Ways to Express Compassion in Our Work with Teens

compassion for teens in therapyFor teenagers, the world can be an extremely harsh and unkind place. Conversely, being kind is a universal antidote to aggression, tension, and hostility. When we are kind, we embody friendliness generosity, and consideration in our interaction, and as helping adults, we have the opportunity to be a boon for teenagers as they move through the many challenges they face.

Teens tend to mimic the behavior that they see in their peers—even when it is rude and rejecting—and as youth workers we may find ourselves on the receiving end of teen hostility and angst.

Often times, the best thing we can do is to strive to remain a kind and calm port in the storm. When we do this, we set an example of an alternative way to be and provide a stable relationship that will foster authentic engagement.

Of course, we’re humans too. Being kind is not always easy, especially when we’re met with disrespect or opposition. But kindness will go a long way when it comes to connecting and working effectively with teens, even when they have not extended the same.

Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  1. Act opposite to emotion.

When teens are being harsh or unkind to us, it can be all too easy to fall into a pattern of reactivity. Our brains are wired to mimic others’ emotions, so we naturally have an urge to respond in kind. However, this is an opportunity to practice mindfulness by noticing our urge and recognizing what response will move us toward a productive goal.

Just because a teen is angry, we do not need to respond with anger. In fact, doing so will only make things worse, while doing the opposite has the potential to have a positive impact.

As helpers, our role is to remain reasonable in the face of the often chaotic and intense experience that is being a teenager. For instance, let’s say a teen storms into your office ranting about something that’s happened with another adult in her life. She’s using threatening words and an angry tone of voice. She may say that adults can’t be trusted.

We may feel triggered. We may want to take control, set limits, or chastise. But if we practice noticing this urge before we act on it, we can implement the skill of acting opposite to emotion; an empirically-supported exercise that was pioneered by the founder of dialectical behavioral therapy, Marsha Linehan.

Start by noticing the urges that are arising from your emotional experience and simply act in a way that is inconsistent with that emotion.

For example, when an angry teen triggers an urge to sternly enforce rules, instead validate with warmth and with calm in your voice and body language. Amazingly, within a few minutes, you will notice the teen before you responding to your emotions and facial expression.

Remember: Teens often mimic the behavior they observe!

  1. Honor adolescents as individuals.

One surefire way to foster compassion is to genuinely honor adolescents as individuals who bring unique qualities, characteristics and experiences to the table. Particularly for those of us who have large caseloads and a high volume of teens who require our attention, this tip is especially important.

Start your day by gently reminding yourself that all teens have something to offer. Let them know when they have been missed; engage them by affirming they have something valuable to contribute; and practice really tuning in to each teen enough to notice when they don’t seem themselves.

Expressions like these communicate care and concern, and encourage teens to trust, connect, and bond with us.

Practice patience. It may take some teens longer than others to connect this way. Be thoughtful about their readiness to engage with us as well. As each teen will take the unique time they need to connect with you, focus on highlighting their strengths and positive attributes. Taking the time to recognize their strengths, and where they’re coming from is in itself an expression of compassion and kindness. It will go a long way.

  1. Give authentic praise.

All too often, the focus of our work with teens can be on mistakes, missteps and problems. Perhaps he missed a deadline or she didn’t follow through with her treatment plan.

The nature of what we do with teens is to facilitate growth and change, but at the same time, focusing on what a teen is doing right and praising even small steps toward progress can make the difference between stagnation and growth.

When we make it a point to notice and offer genuine praise to teens, we give them an opportunity to feel celebrated and honored. We also give them feedback that serves as a template for what to continue doing in the future.

Major achievements, such as winning a competition or earning an academic honor, are of course worth of celebration; but recognizing smaller achievements serves both us and the youth we work with well, too.

Think about achievements as relative to each individual adolescent. If a teen hasn’t been to class in a week and then shows up on time, for example, that is an opportunity to identify and praise positive behavior.

Stop to take the time to specifically verbalize what you’ve observed and make the connection to the improved outcome. It’s not at all uncommon for teens to dismiss, overlook or minimize their accomplishments. Be their cheerleader. Stop them in their tracks and say, “That was incredible and it will make a positive difference.”

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Three Ways to Express Compassion in Our Work with Teens

Julie Baron, LCSW

Julie Baron is a licensed clinical social worker in private practice in Rockville, MD specializing in treating adolescents and their families. She is the co-author of What Works with Teens: A Professional’s Guide to Engaging Authentically with Adolescents to Achieve Lasting Change.


APA Reference
, . (2019). Three Ways to Express Compassion in Our Work with Teens. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 13, 2020, from


Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 25 Sep 2019
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 25 Sep 2019
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