The Problem with Empathy in Teens: supporting friends AND holding personal boundaries


It’s not uncommon that I work with people who identify as empaths. Many remember when they were a teenager that they had friends who are struggling and leaning on them for support. Receiving trauma stories can be traumatic in and of itself…especially when the young listener is asked to keep it a secret.

If you’ve been in this situation, or you are a parent who recognizes that high degree of sensitivity in your teen, and a tendency to put other people’s big needs ahead of their own, it can be important to learn what is helpful and not helpful. Many sensitive young people need to understand that setting boundaries is not mean or selfish.

Boundaries are a healthy part of every relationship. Whether you are a teen, or you are working with your inner teen, it may be helpful to consider your boundaries in the situation.

As a friend, you won’t be able to:

  • Fix the past by carrying your friend’s trauma for them.
  • Make it all better.
  • Change what happened to your friend.
  • Speed up your friend’s healing process.

As a friend, what you can do is:

  • Listen to their story and affirm their experience.
  • BE the reminder that good people exist.
  • Provide tissues, chocolate, flowers, laughs.
  • Connect your friend to other supports/resources (if that’s what they want/need. If it’s suicidal thoughts are mentioned, DO tell an adult you trust, even if the friend asks you to keep it secret).
  • Create & share in new moments of joy.

If it’s a sexual assault that has been disclosed, your friend is 100% in charge of what happens next. Your friend may need time to decide who else they want to tell, and that’s okay, too. As a good friend, it is essential that you simply acknowledge that, let them know you believe them and that you care, and honour their boundaries.

Ultimately, do your best to be a good friend, offer what you can provide, and also know that you have limits.


Angela Cara

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