Nurturing Empathy in Our Teens |

Nurturing Empathy in Our Teens

Teenagers often get a bad rap for being perceived as lazy, selfish, nonchalant, and detached from the real world. It is not uncommon to hear parents, teachers, and community elders complain about adolescent behavior, with typical stereotypes suggesting that teens “only care about themselves,” “do not listen,” “are disrespectful,” and “lack empathy.” These stereotypes are further perpetuated by cinema, television, and social media, where entire narratives are sometimes built around the concept of a typical, irresponsible teen. 

Despite society’s widespread acceptance of this portrayal, it does not have to be that way. The truth is teenagers have the potential to become some of the most passionate advocates for upholding family values, civil rights, environmental consciousness, racial equality, and positive social change. They have been and can be standard bearers for progress when provided with love and guidance.  

Understanding Teen Development

The initial step in raising empathetic teenagers is to learn about their development within and outside the context of Islam while recognizing their unique capabilities. In Islamic tradition, the transition from childhood to adulthood is distinctly marked by the onset of puberty, at which point individuals are considered responsible for acts of worship and communal duties. Historically in Muslim societies there was a straightforward progression from childhood to adulthood, where individuals attained full adult rights and responsibilities once deemed mentally capable. Typically, this shift occured at the onset of puberty, as early as age nine or as late as fifteen. This conventional view lacked an intermediary phase akin to the modern concept of the teenage years, although texts did acknowledge distinct stages of youth. 

In a hadith outlining religious education, Abdullah ibn Amr ibn al-'As narrated that the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, said: 

“Command your children to pray when they become seven years old and reprimand them for it (prayer) when they become ten years old; and arrange their beds (to sleep) separately.” 

(Sunan Abi Dawud)

There are clear distinctions made in this narration between children under the age of seven and above the age of ten, indicating a greater level of responsibility once they reach the latter. It is crucial, however, to contextualize these norms within the simplicity of a society 1400 years ago, which had significantly fewer social responsibilities and interference. In today’s more complex public landscape, marked by an abundance of social and cognitive stimuli, the idea of blanket maturity at the onset of puberty is no longer practical or reasonable. Recognizing the multidimensional nature of development aligns more closely with contemporary scientific findings. 

The construct of the so-called “teens” is continually shaped and reshaped by a myriad of influential factors, making it challenging to establish a uniform understanding. The prevailing concept of adolescence as an interim period before maturity must take into account the diverse cultural, economic, and social landscapes within societies where Muslims reside. In recent history, researchers have shed light on the adolescent brain and what makes it different from that of a younger child or adult. According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), the brain stops growing by early adolescence, but subsequent fine-tuning occurs during the teen years. The brain finally finishes developing and maturing in the mid-to-late 20s, and the prefrontal cortex, which regulates our thoughts, actions, and emotions, is one of the last parts to fully mature.1

Nevertheless, teenagers can still become empathetic learners and leaders. During adolescence, a heightened emphasis on peer relationships and social experiences is shaped by changes in the brain’s social processes. This stage in development may inspire teenagers to take positive risks. These ventures could involve beneficial actions like initiating conversations with new classmates, joining clubs or sports teams, and even getting involved in social action. The adolescent years can be an optimal period for fostering a sense of social responsibility, making it the prime time for empathetic engagement that endures into adulthood.

Teen Role Models

Muslim youth played essential roles in early Islamic society. 

  • Ali Ibn Abi Talib was the first young person to accept Islam when he was only around ten years old and went on to faithfully defend Islam in his teens and accompany the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, into adulthood. 
  • Another example is Usama Ibn Zaid, who the Prophet appointed to lead a military expedition against the Byzantine Empire when he was only 17 or 18. He became the youngest Muslim military commander in history despite some companions complaining about his lack of experience (Sahih Bukhari). 
  • The “four Abdullahs” – Abdullah bin Abbas, Abdullah bin Umar, Abdullah bin Amr bin Al-As, and Abdullah bin Az-Zubair – were in their teens during decisive moments of the Prophetic Seerah and at the forefront of preserving the Sunnah through hadith narration. 

Abdullah Ibn Umar, may Allah be pleased with him, reported: 

“Allah’s Messenger, peace and blessings be upon him, called me to present myself in front of him on the eve of the battle of Uhud, while I was fourteen years of age at that time, and he did not allow me to take part in that battle, but he called me in front of him on the eve of the battle of the Trench when I was fifteen years old, and he allowed me (to join the battle).” 

Nafi (a later narrator of this hadith) said, “I went to Umar bin Abdul Aziz, who was Caliph at that time and related the above narration to him. He said, “This age (fifteen) is the limit between childhood and manhood,” and wrote to his governors to give salaries to those who reached the age of fifteen. (Sahih Bukhari)

According to this account, Caliph Umar ibn Abdul Aziz, may Allah have mercy on him, reasoned that a person who reaches the age of fifteen has become an adult based on the hadith about Ibn Umar, thus recognizing the period before this as an interim between childhood and adulthood. Many child companions of Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, were what we would call teenagers. Nevertheless, they were not the reckless troublemakers that people complain of today; they were honorable, dependable, and compassionate. These young companions were known for their nobility and grew up to be the heroes Muslims read about in classical Islamic literature. Today’s youth can also reach the same status if given a chance and the proper tools and training. It all begins with prayer, education, and guidance from the village – the Muslim Ummah – starting with their parents, family, and their community.  

Nurturing Empathy 

Here are some tips on how to build social awareness and nurture empathy in Muslim adolescents:

1. Instill a sense of pride in their religion and origin. 

Encourage an understanding and appreciation of their Islamic heritage, emphasizing the positive values and contributions of their religion and cultural background. This pride forms a foundation for empathetic engagement. Reading and reflecting on the Quran can aid in this step. For example, the following verse should make all believers feel proud of their religious identity:

“You are the best community ever raised for humanity—you encourage good, forbid evil, and believe in Allah. Had the People of the Book believed, it would have been better for them. Some of them are faithful, but most are rebellious.” 

(Surah Al-Imran, 3:110)

2. Teach them about the history of Islam and the heroes of our past. 

Immerse them in the rich history of Islam, introducing them to the heroic figures who exemplify virtues such as compassion, justice, and empathy. These historical role models, including teenage companions, can inspire a solid moral compass.

3. Participate in community service. 

Have teenagers actively engage in community service initiatives that align with Islamic values, such as feeding people experiencing poverty, organizing clothing drives, contributing to canned food drives, participating in neighborhood clean-up projects, and preparing hygiene packages for the less fortunate. By actively participating in these activities, Muslim teens contribute to the welfare of their community and gain firsthand experience in understanding the challenges others face. This hands-on involvement fosters a deep sense of empathy as they directly witness the impact of their actions on the lives of those in need. Moreover, it instills a commitment to social responsibility, reinforcing the values of compassion and altruism inherent in Islamic teachings. 

Through these collective efforts, teens learn the importance of empathy in creating positive change and cultivating a strong sense of connection to the well-being of the broader community. Getting their friends involved is a bonus that may motivate them to do more, as they also use the opportunity for socialization. 

4. Travel if possible so they can step out of their comfort zones. 

Foster a global perspective by exposing adolescents to diverse cultures, emphasizing the positive aspects and challenges different communities face. This practice broadens their understanding and empathy for the human experience. If feasible, encourage travel to different regions, locally or internationally. Exposure to new environments and cultures teaches them adaptability, resilience, and a broader worldview, contributing to the development of empathy. In several verses of the Quran, Allah encourages human beings to travel and contemplate creation to increase their faith. He also warns those who are heedless to reflect on the fate of their ancestors. For example, in Surah Ar-Rum, Allah says: 

“Have they not traveled through the earth and observed how was the end of those before them? They were greater than them in power, and they plowed [or excavated] the earth and built it up more than they [i.e., the Makkans] have built it up, and their messengers came to them with clear evidences. And Allah would not ever have wronged them, but they were wronging themselves.” 

(Surah Ar-Rum, 30:9)

5. Learn about different perspectives and critical moments in history. 

Encourage reading literature that explores various viewpoints and historical contexts. An alternative is watching beneficial documentaries, docuseries, or movies. Exposure to diverse narratives helps teens develop empathy by understanding the experiences and perspectives of others. Allah encourages the believers to expand their worldview in the following verse:

“O humanity! Indeed, We created you from a male and a female, and made you into peoples and tribes so that you may ˹get to˺ know one another. Surely the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous among you. Allah is truly All-Knowing, All-Aware.” 

(Surah Al-Hujurat, 49:13)

6. Encourage them to watch the news and form their own opinions. 

Actively involve them in current events through news consumption, guiding them to analyze information and form independent opinions critically. This practice enhances their awareness of social issues and encourages empathy toward those affected. The news can be stressful to watch, and understandably, some parents prefer their children to avoid learning about the violence happening in different places around the world. However, building a sense of social awareness entails exposure to the injustices that occur to activate a healthy response from teens. Avoid forcing opinions on children; allow them to reach their own conclusions. Their opinions may not always align with their parents, but these can change over time as they consume more factual information. 

7. Explore their interests and build their social network. 

Support teen participation in events, clubs, or hobbies aligned with their interests. These opportunities help develop skills and facilitate the formation of a diverse social network, encouraging empathy through understanding different perspectives and backgrounds. Allow them to explore various options and youth programs in the local masjid or Islamic community center. If none exist, consider approaching the administration and volunteering some time to create regular events or activities for Muslim youth. 

In a beautiful hadith narrated by Abu Huraira, may Allah be pleased with him, the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, mentioned seven people with seven characteristics that would earn them blessings on the Day of Judgement, one of them being youth. He said: 

“Seven are (the persons) whom Allah would give protection with His Shade on the Day when there would be no shade but that of Him (i.e. on the Day of Judgment, and they are): a just ruler, a youth who grew up with the worship of Allah; a person whose heart is attached to the mosques; two persons who love and meet each other and depart from each other for the sake of Allah; a man whom a beautiful woman of high rank seduces (for illicit relation), but he (rejects this offer by saying):” I fear Allah”; a person who gives charity and conceals it (to such an extent) that the right-hand does not know what the left has given: and a person who remembered Allah in privacy and his eyes shed tears.” 

(Sahih Muslim)

Although the youth who grows up in the worship of Allah is only one of the seven mentioned, nothing prevents that same youth from fulfilling all of those seven categories. The deeds mentioned offer a comprehensive guide, illustrating that the blessings of Divine protection extend to various acts of worship. Whether a teen strives to be a just leader, immerse themselves in the worship of Allah from a young age, form bonds of love solely for the sake of Allah, resist worldly temptations by declaring their fear of Allah, practice concealed charity, or engage in private remembrance of Allah with heartfelt tears, each of these actions holds the potential for earning Allah’s favor. This hadith beautifully emphasizes that the spectrum of virtuous deeds is vast and inclusive, providing teens with multiple avenues to garner blessings by aligning their actions with the principles of justice, devotion, compassion, and integrity. All parents need to do is have faith in their teenager’s inherent capacity to become a compassionate leader in driving positive social change and provide them with gentle guidance rooted in Prophetic tradition, inshaAllah, God willing.

End Notes

1 The Teen Brain: 7 Things to Know - National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)

Wendy Díaz is a Puerto Rican Muslim writer, award-winning poet, translator, and mother of six (ages ranging from infant to teen). She is the co-founder of Hablamos Islam, a non-profit organization that produces educational resources about Islam in Spanish ( She has written, illustrated, and published over a dozen children’s books and currently lives with her family in Maryland. Follow Wendy Díaz on social media @authorwendydiaz and @hablamosislam.

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