Mindfulness Facilitates Empathy in Teens

There are many social skills that teens are still developing. On the whole, until they learn to become more empathic, they will continue their eye-rolling and door-slamming. Of course, there are many teens that are kind, sensitive, and considerate. However, in general, adolescence tends to come with social anxiety and therefore a focus on the self when it comes to social situations. One interesting psychological trait of teens is the belief in being the center of attention, even when they are not. For this reason, teens can be self-conscious and self-centered.

Developing empathy is a social skill that comes with their developing brains. Empathy is a skill that most therapists, counselors, and parents have. It’s the ability to place yourself within the inner landscape of another person. It’s an experience connection with another that takes into account his or her entire inner world – thoughts, ideas, attitudes.

The two kinds of empathy – cognitive and affective – develop differently in adolescent males and females. For instance, cognitive empathy, the mental ability to see the perspective of others, begins to develop steadily in girls at age 13. Research shows, however, that for boys, cognitive empathy doesn’t begin to develop until the age of 15. The ability to see the perspective of others facilitates problem solving and avoids relational conflict. It might explain the conflicts in relationships that are more common among adolescent boys than girls.

In fact, teen boys show a temporary decline in the development of the related skill, affective empathy, the ability to recognize and respond to the feelings of others. Between the ages of 13 and 16, boys show a decreased ability in affective empathy, but recover in their later teens. The affective empathy for girls remains relatively high and stable throughout adolescence.

Recent research indicates that “the brain regions that support social cognition, which helps us understand and interact with others successfully, continue to change dramatically in teens” said Jennifer Pfeifer, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Oregon. This research facilitates the exploration of social behaviors among adolescents such as bullying and teen drug addiction.

However, the practice of mindfulness can be a very effective practice for teens who might be experiencing teen addiction, bullying, and other social conflicts. Mindfulness is the practice of becoming conscious of your internal and external environment. It is a mental state achieved by focusing on the present moment, while acknowledging and accepting the existing feelings, thoughts, bodily sensations, and surrounding activity. Because affective and cognitive empathy are abilities that allow teens to recognize and respond to the feelings and perspectives of others, mindfulness promotes the ability to be empathetic with others. Mindfulness encourages the ability to recognize the happenings in one’s internal and external environment, as well as get a sense of the internal landscape of others in social interactions.

The practice of being mindful also encourages insight, the ability to explore memories of the past, along with memories of the present, and imagine how it might be in the future. And mindfulness also supports attuned communication. This is the kind of connection that is common among parents and their children. However, it can also happen between friends meeting for coffee or a couple out on a date. Attuned communication is when two human beings feel as though they are a part of one resonating whole. You might even feel this sort of connection with a stranger, if you look into their eyes, and tune into who they are.

Sadly, mindful awareness is often not taught in schools or in most homes. However, its benefits are noteworthy. For a teen struggling with the chaos of adolescence, a mindfulness practice can have incredible positive effects on the mind, body, and heart.


Shellenbarger, S. (October 15, 2013). Teens Are Still Developing Empathy Skills. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved on July 1, 2014 from: http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304561004579137514122387446

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