Moral Courage: Helping Teens Find Inner Strength and Use Their HEART to Help Friends

By Sue Scheff Posted June 06, 2016 under Guest Authors

Peer pressure to fit in: It's been an issue for generations and will probably always be a concern.

The question is, does “fitting in” mean you are sacrificing your values or possibly even jeopardizing your health and safety?

We remember the days when our parents used to drill “Just Say No to Drugs” into our heads, but I'm not sure that many of us actually thought twice before trying them. 

These days, teens are even more in-tune with the various ways to “get high” and certainly know how to encourage, or pressure, their friends to participate as well.

This is where moral courage comes into play.

We frequently speak about how building self-confidence and self-esteem can help teens make better choices, however we may be overlooking the secret sauce that helps our kids actually develop those skills. New research shows that it is empathy (or our ability to feel with others) that helps our kids stay true to their moral beliefs and emboldens them to stand up or speak out for others. It’s not easy for adults, let alone kids, but studies show that moral courage is also crucial for saying “no” to temptation and peer pressure. 

Moral courage is a special inner strength that motivates teens to act on their empathic urges and help others despite the consequences.  

Dr. Michele Borba, Educational Psychologist, explains this in her new book, UnSelfie, Why Empathic Kids Succeed In An All-About-Me World, “It may not rate as cool to other kids, but these kids will stick their necks out and stand up for what's right, especially if your teen is at risk.” Dr. Borba continues, “Morally courageous teens are true UnSelfies: quiet, unsung heroes who don't expect accolades and trophies, but act on their concern for others out of beliefs.”

The path to moral courage often starts with empathy — we all have the capacity to use our “heart,” but it tends to lie dormant unless we activate it. As adults, it’s important for us to serve as positive role models for our teens by activating this empathy within ourselves. We can also help our teens to activate it within themselves. 

To build our teens’ moral courage, communication is key. So, let's discuss how to help kids develop H.E.A.R.T. (the ability to help, empathize, assist, reassure and tell their peers how they feel). It’s one of the dozens of empathy-building strategies Borba offers in UnSelfie that will help kids develop the crucial inner strength to say “no” to peers, and stick to what they know is right. Here are ways Borba suggests that you can have a conversation with your teens so they have the tools to help themselves—as well their peers—handle some of the tougher situations in life.

H = Help. If a friend is pressuring you to try a potentially dangerous substance, seek help in a real friend or an adult. You may also have a friend who needs your help to talk him out of a risky behavior. Maybe you could talk about the consequences, or discuss another way to spend your time.

E = Empathize. Chances are you’ll have a friend who might at some point be using drugs or doing something dangerous. Show compassion! Let him know you care and are concerned. Tell him that’s why you want him to stop. Let him know, “I'll be there for you.”

A = Assist. You could offer to assist your friend in getting the help she needs to stop the risky behavior. You might say, “Do you need help?” or “I can ask a teacher or someone you trust to help you.” Be the kind of person who cares.

R = Reassure. You could tell your friend, “You don’t have to use drugs just because other kids are using drugs.” Or you could say, “Remember, I'm your friend. I will help you get through this.”

T = Tell how you feel. Your friend might not agree with you, but tell her how you feel anyway. You could say, “Using drugs are so dangerous today. I would be so sad if you weren't around.” You could also appeal to your friend’s sense of moral courage by saying, “It takes courage to stand up for your beliefs, but remember it’s always best to be safe than sorry.”

Once teens know what to say and do in troubling situations, they’ll be more likely to discover their moral courage and use it. And that crucial moral courage is always fueled by empathy.  

Do you have any other tips for fostering moral courage in teens? Feel free to share them in the comments below!

Sue Scheff is an author and parent advocate. She is the founder of Parents Universal Resource Experts (P.U.R.E.), which has helped thousands of families since 2001 with at-risk teenagers. Her first book, Wit's End! Advice and Resources for Saving Your Out-of-Control Teen continues to be resource for many parents raising teens today. Follow Sue on Twitter and join her on Facebook.