In human society, empathy is considered a vital attribute for a thriving, supportive community. An adolescent with well-developed empathy will find it much easier to understand another person’s point of view, respond to their feelings appropriately, and foster healthy relationships.
However, some teens struggle to consider the perspectives of others. While this can make a teen seem selfish or self-centred, many parents don’t understand that their teen’s ‘empathy gap’ is influenced by many factors, including biological influences.
Although commonly perceived as an inherent trait, empathy is actually a learned skill that develops throughout a person’s adolescent years. This article will examine affective and cognitive empathy development in young people, explore why some teens appear to lack empathy and provide tips to help parents nurture this vital skill. Ultimately, applying empathy to their interactions with others will help them to self-regulate and show more consideration.
Understanding the empathy gap
Research shows that an adolescent ’s brain works differently to an adult’s brain. Teens use different parts of the brain to identify emotions, which can lead to difficulties interpreting body language, facial expression and tone of voice . In fact, a number of studies demonstrate that a teen’s ‘cognitive empathy’ and ‘affective empathy’ continue developing into early adulthood . This makes it especially important that parents proactively help their child strengthen these skills, allowing them to effectively regulate their emotions and build positive relationships.
Affective empathy development in teens
‘Affective empathy’ is the term used to describe the sensations and emotions we feel in response to another person’s emotions. This may include mirroring what the person is feeling or providing a sympathetic response. Beginning in infancy, children learn to practice affective empathy by observing their parents and experiencing empathy from others.
For girls, affective empathy tends to remain at a high, steady level throughout adolescence. For boys, studies suggest a temporary decline in affective empathy between the ages of 13 and 16, possibly due to a surge of testosterone in early puberty . Affective empathy usually recovers by the time boys enter their late teens.
Cognitive empathy development in teens
‘Cognitive empathy’ is also known as perspective taking: the ability to consider situations from another person’s point of view. Compared to adults, teens use brain regions that govern cognitive empathy, possibly because understanding others’ views takes more conscious effort . For girls, cognitive empathy begins rising from the age of 13, while for boys, cognitive empathy has a more delayed start at 15.
Although cognitive empathy and affective empathy are separate, studies show them to have a strong link. According to a Dutch study, a child’s affective empathy will help predict their level of cognitive empathy as an adolescent .
Peer influence, personality and empathy
Obviously, a teen’s empathy skills may vary due to individual personality and peer influence. For example, some shy teens may feel overwhelmed or confused by their emotions, leading them to withdraw and appear reserved, cold or insensitive when this is not a true representation of their personality. It is crucial not to misinterpret shyness or confusion as lacking empathy .
For some teenage boys, the act of displaying vulnerability through empathy represents a huge social risk. Many teenage boys are socialised to ‘act like men’ with strong pressure from peers and sometimes adults to appear strong, tough, and detached. Although they may be capable of taking another’s perspective (cognitive empathy), they may find it difficult to express affective empathy in a group for fear of risking ostracism from peers .
A lack of empathy has also been linked to cyberbullying . Often teens will bully, intentionally or unintentionally, because they have trouble understanding the impact of their actions on others’ welfare or relating emotionally to the victim. This makes it especially important that they learn to empathise with peers who are ‘different’ to them and become comfortable acting in accordance with a moral identity .
Tips to Help Teens Develop Empathy
1. Encourage critical thinking about emotions
Ensuring that you and your child are comfortable talking and thinking about emotions is an important first step. . Acknowledge the importance of independent and critical thinking, as well as how feelings and desires can influence behaviour . First, encourage your child to explicitly label their own emotions. Second, make regular time to ask them what they observe about others’ non-verbal communication, including facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice.
For example, you might ask your child to interpret the behaviour and feelings of characters in their favourite TV shows, video games or books . Do they relate to a particular character? How do they think that fictional character is feeling, and why? How might the other characters think and feel? You might also try discussing current events in the news and have a discussion about how they think the people involved might be feeling .
2. Be a positive role model for empathy
The best way to encourage empathy is to model empathetic behaviour yourself . Strive to show empathy in your everyday treatment of others. Share examples from your past where you’ve needed to consciously exercise empathy. You can guide your child to recognise and label their feelings by modelling the verbal expression of your own feelings. When they approach you with a problem, disconnect from all distractions and give them your full attention. Ask them to extend the same courtesy for you.
3. Encourage critical thinking about emotional needs and compromise
Research suggests that when a teen feels their emotional needs are addressed, they show more empathy for others who are experiencing emotional distress . Actively encourage them to think critically about how they can balance their emotional needs with others’ needs. Studies show that teens whose parents help them cope with negative emotions in a sympathetic, solution-oriented way are more likely to demonstrate concern for other teens .
If your child is misbehaving, ask them which emotions they are feeling and what they are hoping to achieve.. Once you understand their underlying emotional need, reflect this back to them, share your own emotional response, and ask whether together you can find a solution. Over time, this will help your teen become more adept at seeking compromises in social relationships .
4. Provide positive reinforcement
As your teen develops empathy and a moral identity over time, it is important to show them how you appreciate their efforts and reward their attempts at empathy with encouragement [6, 4]. Strive to develop an honest relationship with your child so that they know that they can depend on you for unconditional l support. Encouraging their cognitive and affective empathy skills will help them become an empathetic adult.
During adolescence, a child’s behaviour may at times seem self-absorbed, which can be attributed to factors such as biology, individuation, and peer and social influence. Fortunately, empathy is a learned skill that parents can help teens develop.
There are many ways you can help nurture cognitive and affective empathy:
- Champion critical thinking about others’ perspectives
- Act as a positive role model for empathy
- Actively encourage your teen to seek compromise
- Reward your teen with encouragement for empathetic behaviour
Ultimately, these steps will help your child find it easier to understand others’ points of view, respond to feelings appropriately, and build healthy, positive relationships.